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Gettysburg College students express concerns over Pennsylvania elections during Democracy Week

FILE - A sign for Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.
Matt Rourke
FILE - A sign for Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa.

On the final evening of Gettysburg College’s Democracy Week, a carnival atmosphere filled the air at the recent Unity Festival.

Cotton candy stands spun sugary pink clouds as the smell of popcorn wafted through the brisk autumn afternoon air. Upbeat music pumped through speakers set up around Stine Lake, the green space in the center of campus.

This is Gettysburg’s second annual Democracy Week, hosted by the Eisenhower Institute, which connects college students with public policy experts.

The week is designed to rebuild trust and strengthen democracy through a series of workshops, discussions, and activities. These included a Constitution Day forum with former members of Congress, a media lunch discussing trusted sources of information, a panel on democratizing America, and the concluding Unity Festival.

According to a poll from Franklin & Marshall College, voters are generally more pessimistic than optimistic about the state’s conditions. In August, 39% of registered voters said the state is “headed in the right direction,” up 7% since April. The prevailing concern remains the economy, with about one-in-four participants mentioning issues like unemployment and rising gas and utility prices.

But while celebrating a well-spent week learning about civic responsibility, many of the students in attendance expressed disappointment with the state of Pennsylvania politics.

Junior Michael Klatt, a registered independent, levied criticism at what he sees as increasing partisan divides in government.

“I think that as you see governments growing more polarized they’re listening less and less to what the people want,” Klatt said.

He called for new perspectives from outside the sphere of career politicians.

“I think we need some new faces in there, people who maybe weren’t celebrities before they were running for office, but people who actually have real-life experiences being normal people who aren’t career politicians,” Klatt said. “I think it’s time that we get exposed to something brand new, and that’s what third parties offer us.”

With the 2024 election just over one year away, Klatt also aired concerns about both Republican and Democratic potential presidential nominees for 2024, claiming none have put forth a compelling vision.

Senior Clayton Brosend, a registered Republican, agreed with Klatt – and said he’s not looking forward to presumably choosing between Biden and Trump.

“I’m dreading it. I hate the presidential election process, or at least what it’s become,” Brosend said. “I don’t see any candidates that really articulate a new vision for America. On both sides, you don’t really get a strong anti-war contingent. You really aren’t getting people who aren’t sellouts to the corporate lobby, to all these other various causes. I don’t see it going anywhere.”

Brosend said the state should make it easier for third-party candidates to compete in local elections.

“I’m not pleased with the way things are looking, especially how difficult it always is for third-party candidates to get on the ballot,” Brosend said.

The number of signatures required to run for elected office in Pennsylvania varies by position.

House Rep. hopefuls must gather 300 signatures; state Senator candidates need 500 signatures; Congressional candidates need 1,000 signatures; and those running for governor or for one of two U.S. Senate seats must get 2,000 signatures – the same amount needed to run for president.

“With people I’ve talked to who will circulate petitions, typically they’ll say if you need 5,000 signatures in a certain place, they say, ‘Well, we really have to get 10,000 because we know that’s going to get challenged in court,” Brosend said. “A lot of that is on the state level, but a lot of it can also be that local municipalities have stricter rules for getting on the ballot. I’d like all across the board to see that loosened a bit.”

Despite expecting a painful election season next year, Brosend appreciates being able to learn about public policy from experts hosted by the Eisenhower Institute, including a domestic terrorism expert from the Department of Homeland Security, a speechwriter to former President George W. Bush, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.

The institute also hosts school-wide debates between political groups on campus. One in October will feature College Democrats, College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom, Young Americans for Liberty, and Young Democratic Socialists of America.

“The Eisenhower Institute really stresses civil discourse and I think that that’s a great institutional value and they really carry that out in all their work,” Brosend said.

Junior Vincent DiFonzo, a registered Democrat, feels more optimistic about the 2024 presidential election, but said Pennsylvania politics are “not doing great.” He cited local controversies as signs of dysfunction playing out in communities right now.

One involved the Gettysburg Area School District’s decision not to renew the contract of a transgender volleyball coach. Some community members said the district had been working to fire the coach because of her transgender identity, which the district denies.

“Local politics can get messy [which leads to] not great people in power,” DiFonzo said.

One of those people, according to DiFonzo, is Republican State Rep. Dan Moul, who represents parts of Adams County – including Gettysburg.

DiFonzo criticized Moul for how he treated Democratic students during a campus political event.

“[Moul] came to this event and essentially harassed a student who told him he was a Democrat and tried to get him to leave the event, because it was a college Republicans event, and that caused a whole controversy,” DiFonzo said.

DiFonzo also criticized rhetoric from some elected officials, which he said continues to exacerbate partisan divisions.

“It’s just people like that who are inflammatory and sparking controversy and stupid things.”

Voting rights and abortion access represent two high-stakes issues on DiFonzo’s mind this election cycle, but he’s also concerned about how Democrats have responded to the economic anxieties of Pennsylvanians.

“People are worried about their jobs and about inflation and all these things. And if Democrats don’t get more specific plans, then I don’t think we can expect to be winning people over, even though the Right might be sometimes so extreme,” DiFonzo said.