The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Pence’s remarkable op-ed highlights the GOP’s choice on voting rights — and where it will probably land

Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, second from left, works beside Vice President Mike Pence during the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

On Jan. 6, supporters of President Donald Trump who latched on to his false claims of voter fraud stormed the Capitol, with some targeting Vice President Mike Pence. Unhappy that Pence declined to take the extraordinary step of trying to unilaterally overturn the presidential election, some even chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.”

Since then, Pence has been rather quiet, declining to address Trump’s attacks on him or apparent lack of interest in his welfare.

But now Pence has spoken. The issue he has chosen to spotlight? Alleged voting problems in 2020.

In an op-ed for the Daily Signal, Pence details his opposition to a voting rights bill spearheaded by House Democrats. He begins, “After an election marked by significant voting irregularities and numerous instances of officials setting aside state election law, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about the integrity of the 2020 election.”

It’s a remarkable entry from Pence, given how disinformation about the election jeopardized his own safety. It’s also emblematic of the GOP’s pivot from Trump’s effort to question the election results, which divided the party in some high-profile ways, to a post-election effort to increase voting restrictions, which seems to be something that more of the Republicans can agree upon.

As The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported, even Republicans who didn’t support Trump’s claims have cited the distrust that they engendered to argue for increasing voter restrictions. Republican state legislators nationwide have proposed hundreds of bills to do things such as scale back voting by mail — despite no evidence of substantial fraud on that front — with some of them already being prioritized by GOP-controlled chambers in key swing states.

Vice President Pence and second lady, Karen Pence, stood by at the inaugural ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20. President Trump was absent. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Pence isn’t the only one facing an uneasy decision about how to handle that. Other high-profile Republicans who declined to validate or rebuked Trump’s claims — and suddenly became enemies of his base — are having to confront an effort that is predicated upon those claims.

Some have taken hands-off approaches. GOP voting bills are front and center in Arizona and Georgia, but the Republican governors of those states, Doug Ducey and Brian Kemp, respectively, have declined to affirmatively weigh in.

Ducey, who was censured by the Arizona GOP for certifying Joe Biden’s victory and praising how the 2020 election was conducted in the state, has yet to take a position on Arizona’s bills.

Kemp offered a somewhat noncommittal answer Tuesday, telling radio host Hugh Hewitt that he supports things such as voter ID for absentee ballots and ensuring that election observers have sufficient access. He said he generally supports measures to safeguard elections — something he controversially spearheaded as Georgia secretary of state, making him a particularly unlikely Trump foil in the aftermath of the 2020 election — but he reserved judgment on specific proposals.

“I think it depends on what it is and what’s in it. I mean, there are so many proposals,” Kemp said, adding: “I wouldn’t say that I would sign every single one of them.”

(Kemp’s office has signaled that he’s mostly letting the legislature do its work and could speak out more forcefully in the near future.)

Kemp’s wait-and-see approach is something of a contrast to that of the other high-profile Georgia Republican to run afoul of Trump by rebuking his claims: Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Raffensperger tweeted last week that he would support a bill that “prioritizes the security and accessibility of elections” but that many of the bills proposed were “reactionary to a three month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented.”

Raffensperger’s deputy, Gabriel Sterling, who also fought Trump’s claims, recently told The Post’s Amy Gardner that some proposals make sense, including a deadline for absentee ballot applications set 11 days before Election Day. But he said other proposals were impractical, including requiring all counties to release the total number of ballots they had received before starting to tally them.

Proposals like the latter one could be particularly instructive. It’s clearly in response to Trump’s false claims of massive “dumps” of fraudulent ballots in key areas, including Atlanta. Republicans have signaled that such bills may be necessary to combat even the perception of malfeasance, but that perception owes in large part to lies that were allowed to spread, and the bills themselves can’t help but serve, in part, to legitimize the claims. It’s a solution to a problem that no evidence suggests actually exists.

To the extent that Republicans who resisted Trump’s fraud claims sign on to such proposals, that surely will be a sign of where the party is headed. To the extent that they resist them in the name of not legitimizing such claims, as Raffensperger has signaled he might, that also will be significant, even if he may be badly outnumbered.

Some of these officials, including, most notably, Kemp and Raffensperger, had made alleged voter fraud a focal point of their prior political campaigns. They found themselves in tough spots — between defending the legitimacy of their own states’ elections and running afoul of Trump — and chose the former. Supporting such bills could be an easier political call.

But other Republicans who weren’t forced to take an actual stand overwhelmingly declined to do so. Pence was one of them. He largely faded into the background — not vouching for Trump’s fraud claims but also not speaking out against them. This eventually culminated in pressure on him to overturn the election, and a very difficult political choice.

If anyone knows where such claims can lead when they are allowed to metastasize, it’s him. That he, too, is legitimizing doubts about the integrity of the election is a significant moment in the emerging GOP voting rights effort.

Given the events of Jan. 6, though, even Republicans who might genuinely think this is about safeguarding elections — and never fully subscribed to Trump’s claims — would do well to consider what they might be legitimizing.