President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to say whether he would accept the results of the November election if he loses, citing discredited conspiracy theories about mail-in voting. During Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, Mike Pence joined Trump in undermining the legitimacy of the country’s democratic process by saying he believes that supposed voter fraud might taint the outcome.
In the final question of the debate, moderator Susan Page asked Pence what he would do if Trump refused to peacefully transfer power. Pence responded by insisting that his boss would win reelection — and by falsely claiming that mail-in voting creates a high risk of voter fraud, which is a largely nonexistent problem that Trump and the Republican party have hyped as part of their efforts to sow doubt in the outcome of the election.
“Well, Susan, first and foremost, I think we’re going to win this election,” Pence said, accusing Biden of being part of the “establishment” for the past 47 years. (Pence, a former congressman and governor, first ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, 32 years ago.)
Pence further claimed that he and Trump “are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules and creating this universal mail-in voting that will create massive opportunities for voter fraud.”
It is true that Trump and the Republican party are waging a legal campaign against mail-in voting, a long-standing practice that has been expanded during the pandemic so that voters can cast ballots without risking COVID-19 exposure. But the lawsuits have nothing to do with fraud: Instead, they are aimed at making it harder for registered voters to cast mail-in ballots by exploiting technicalities that could prevent legitimate ballots from being counted.
The Republican strategy is simple. Fear-mongering about voter fraud is a form of voter intimidation and could discourage those who are worried about inadvertently breaking the law from voting. It also lays the groundwork for Trump to falsely declare himself the winner on Nov. 3 and move to halt the counting of mail-in ballots, which are likely to favor Biden. With millions of people voting by mail, the actual result of the presidential election will likely take weeks to determine.
During his answer, Pence also referenced “Obamagate,” a conspiracy theory embraced by Trump that posits that former President Barack Obama and his so-called “deep state” allies worked secretly to sabotage Trump’s presidency before he even entered office — a wild claim that Trump frequently turns to when advocating for the imprisonment of his political opponents. (He has repeatedly called for Obama and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to be arrested over the supposed scandal.) Trump tweeted a reference to the conspiracy theory earlier on Wednesday: “BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN - GOT CAUGHT!!!”
Instead of pressing Pence to commit to a peaceful transition of power — or at least mentioning that voter fraud is not, in fact, a widespread problem — Page moved on. She had asked all of her prepared questions, she said, and wanted to spend the final minutes of the debate on a question about civility written by an eighth grader.
“If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?” the student wanted to know. Page gave each candidate one minute to respond.