Shine a light. It’s the only way to keep real democracy alive

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 3, 2021


“What the country needs is dirtier fingernails and cleaner minds”
– Will Rogers

It was in February 2017 that the Washington Post introduced the following slogan on its website and then in print: “Democracy dies in darkness”.

Everyone thought the new tagline was aimed at Donald Trump who was inaugurated as America’s 45th president the previous month. “But that’s not the case,” the Post’s media reporter insisted at the time. He explained that “Democracy dies in darkness” is an old phrase, often used (but not coined) by the paper’s legendary Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward. The Post said that the person who actually wrote Mr Woodward’s oft-quoted phrase was a judge – Damon J. Keith of the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The judge ruled that the government couldn’t wiretap individuals without a warrant, adding that “Democracy dies in the dark.”

It was before Watergate but the point about the dangers of secrecy in government was true in the 1970s, in 2017, and now, in 2021.

I’ve always found it remarkable that the American media, despite its faults, remains truly and madly committed to rent the veil of secrecy from the functionings of government. That’s probably one of the reasons American democracy managed to withstand the excruciating stress test of the past four years. (The other reason, of course, is that many brave Americans – Republicans and Democrats alike – remained individually committed to upholding the rule of law. These courageous folk include  Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp and secretary of state Brad Raffensperger.)

In countries like India (where democratic freedoms and pluralism are  being rolled back without the people fully realising what they have lost and are continuing to lose), there are fewer outlets that remain boldly committed to banishing the darkness, the information blackhole. (The Wire, edited by Siddharth Varadarajan is one.)

So to ‘The Fight to vote’, again about elections in the US. It’s written by Sam Levine. For those who do not know, Mr Levine is a Guardian journalist based in the US. For anyone who’s interested in how democracy works – until it doesn’t –Mr Levine’s weekly email is worth reading. If you don’t subscribe (it’s free), I encourage you to do so.

‘The Fight to Vote’ basically pulls together all the ongoing attempts in the United States to restrict voting and make the whole process as narrow as possible.

It’s not like it offers startling revelations. For instance, several outlets have reported on the new analysis issued by the Brennan Center for Justice about the Republican Party’s 106 pending bills that would restrict voting.

But Mr Levine’s email breaks it all down simply and clearly and also keeps tabs on other pro and anti-democratic measures in the works.

Let me draw on last week’s offering.

** 106 pending bills across 28 US states are meant to restrict access to voting. That’s a sharp increase from nearly a year ago, when there were 35 restrictive bills pending across 15 states.

** More than a third of the bills would place new restrictions on voting by mail.

** Pennsylvania has 14 pending proposals for new voter restrictions, the most in the country.

** New Hampshire has 11 pending proposals for new voter restrictions, Missouri has 9, and Mississippi, New Jersey, and Texas 8 each.

** There are seven bills across four states that would limit opportunities for election day registration.

** In Georgia, which the Democrats won back in both the presidential and senatorial contests, Republicans are considering the elimination of absentee voting without a valid excuse. They are also considering whether to require voters to submit a copy of their ID when they vote by mail.

Just to put this in context, there are also 406 bills that would expand voting access pending across 35 states. And legislators in Oregon are considering whether to allow felons to vote while in prison. Thus far, this is allowed only in two other states – Maine and Vermont (as well as the District of Columbia).

Shining a light on the underbelly, the darkest corners, is the way to keep democracy alive.