It’s been almost two months since former Vice President Mike Pence narrowly escaped a violent mob of Trump supporters in the Capitol building that wanted to lynch him for betraying the former president. Pence largely stayed quiet in the days and weeks that followed. He made an appearance at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. And then he journeyed to the Virgin Islands for a brief vacation.
What brought Pence back to public life? As it turns out, the opportunity to spread the same disinformation about American elections that endangered his life and led to the deaths of five others on January 6. In an op-ed on Tuesday in The Daily Signal, Pence adopts a mild version of the Big Lie that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from Trump. “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,” he wrote.
Pence’s op-ed focuses on H.R. 1, the election-reform bill championed by Democrats over the past two years. He is, unsurprisingly, not a big fan of it. The bill would, according to Pence, “increase opportunities for election fraud, trample the First Amendment, further erode confidence in our elections, and forever dilute the votes of legally qualified eligible voters.” This is only a slightly different tack than Mitch McConnell took when he condemned the bill as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” a few years ago. Yet it’s still a notable change of tone from the former vice president.
“Many of the most troubling voting irregularities took place in states that set aside laws enacted by state legislatures in favor of sweeping changes ordered by governors, secretaries of state, and courts,” he wrote. “While legislators in many states have begun work on election reform to restore public confidence in state elections, unfortunately, congressional Democrats have chosen to sweep those valid concerns and reforms aside and to push forward a brazen attempt to nationalize elections in blatant disregard of the U.S. Constitution.”
Along the way, Pence displays some impressive levels of cynicism. “Polling shows that large numbers of Democrats did not trust the outcome of the 2016 election and that large numbers of Republicans still do not trust the outcome of the 2020 election,” he noted at one point. Some Democrats didn’t trust the 2016 election because of a foreign interference campaign into which Pence’s running mate spent three years trying to squelch investigations. Many Republicans don’t trust the 2020 election because that same running mate (and most of the GOP, and most of the conservative media ecosystem) constantly lied about it to spare Trump’s feelings.
H.R. 1, according to Pence, defies this sentiment by blocking states from “implementing new, needed reforms.” This is an apparent reference to the deluge of restrictive voting bills introduced by Republican state lawmakers across the country this year, who often cite a “lack of faith” in the 2020 outcome and phantasmal fears of voter fraud to justify bills that make it harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies to vote. In Georgia, which narrowly went to Joe Biden and elected two Democratic senators, GOP state legislators are trying to scrap automatic voter registration, sharply reduce absentee voting, and much more to restore their hegemony. They’re even taking aim at early voting hours on weekends in an apparent bid to derail the longtime Black civic tradition of voting after church on Sundays.
Pence’s ire toward the bill even extends to reforms that many Americans generally support. “Congressional districts would be redrawn by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats,” he warns, an apparent dig at independent redistricting commissions. A number of states have implemented them in recent years to reduce the partisan influence of state lawmakers, often after statewide referendums. They also come after a decade in which Republicans used extreme gerrymandering schemes to entrench themselves in state legislatures and give themselves disproportionate influence in the House. If anything, the hyperpartisan boundaries made those lawmakers “unaccountable” as well, just in a way that Pence prefers.
In one bizarre part of his op-ed, he even claims that under H.R. 1, “illegal immigrants and law-abiding American citizens would receive equal representation in Congress.” That’s actually the status quo in American elections, thanks to the Constitution, which requires the census to count the “total population” for reapportionment. Pence should know this: The Trump administration tried really hard to do otherwise and kept falling short. The simplest solution to this problem would be creating a pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants, thereby increasing the share of “law-abiding Americans” in the country. But Pence opposes that as well.
Over the past few years, Pence cultivated a somewhat softer, kinder image than his running mate. This isn’t a particularly hard job when you share a ticket with Donald Trump, of course. But that project appears to be at an end with this op-ed, which sounds less like Pence of the past four years and more like a Tucker Carlson jeremiad. “Felons would be able to vote the moment they set foot out of prison,” Pence warned in the op-ed at one point. “Leftists not only want you powerless at the ballot box, they want to silence and censor anyone who would dare to criticize their unconstitutional power grab.” Yikes.
Pence also makes sure to stick up for one of the most downtrodden groups in American politics: wealthy campaign donors. He bemoans that H.R. 1 would supposedly “impose onerous legal and administrative burdens on candidates, civic groups, unions, nonprofit organizations, and ordinary citizens who want to exercise their First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, including on public policy issues that are vital to the life of our nation.” That sounds pretty bad, right? But Pence only singles out one provision as questionable.
“Under HR 1, donations to many private organizations would be made public, exposing millions of Americans to the radical left’s cancel culture crusade,” he claims with cringeworthy alliteration. In fact, federal law already requires campaigns and some other political groups to disclose donors who contribute more than a certain amount of money in the interest of, y’know, transparency and anti-corruption and all that fun stuff. Beyond that, the most significant campaign-finance change H.R. 1 makes is cracking down on coordination between campaigns and super PACs. That’s only a First Amendment issue for the average American if the average American is also giving a ton of money to super PACs to skirt campaign contribution limits.
Why did Pence choose this, of all things, as his reentry maneuver into post–vice presidential politics? Is he just really committed to ensuring that America’s patchwork election systems continue to structurally favor Republican candidates, the 2020 race notwithstanding? Or was it the easiest way to signal that he bears no grudges to his fellow conservatives after their lies about the 2020 election endangered his life? I just hope it wasn’t an attempt to get back in Trump’s good graces. Less than 24 hours after Pence’s op-ed was published, Bloomberg reported that Trump is considering another run for president in 2024—and that his former vice president won’t be on the ballot.