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With 'counterfeit ballots' theory, Barr starts to go over the edge

It's one thing when the chief law enforcement official looks like a political operative; it's vastly worse when he looks like a foolish political operative
Image: President Trump Issues Executive Order Against Social Media Companies
Attorney General William Barr in the Oval Office on May 28, 2020.Doug Mills / Pool via Getty Images

The political world has come to expect certain tactics from Attorney General Bill Barr. He's rightly seen as an aggressive partisan. He's recognized as someone who'll peddle falsehoods in service of Donald Trump's agenda. Barr has earned a reputation for politicizing federal law enforcement to a degree without modern precedent.

But lately, the attorney general's tactics have taken a turn toward the bizarre.

Last week, for example, Barr launched an investigation into a controversy that doesn't exist, appointing a federal prosecutor to scrutinize routine "unmaskings" from the Obama-era. It had the effect of, among other things, directly connecting the attorney general's office with fringe nonsense.

It was around this time that Barr sat down with the New York Times, which asked about Donald Trump's aggressive campaign against Americans voting by mail. The attorney general didn't just endorse the president's crusade, Barr floated a new theory involving foreign governments possibly conspiring to mail in fake ballots.

"I haven't looked into that," he cautioned, offering no evidence to substantiate that this was a real possibility. But he called it "one of the issues that I'm real worried about," and added: "We've been talking about how, in terms of foreign influence, there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in. And it'd be very hard to sort out what's happening."

If your angry uncle who send you all-caps emails wrote this on Facebook, it'd be weird. When the line comes from the nation's chief law enforcement official, it's quite a bit a worse.

Whether Barr understands the basics of voting by mail or not, the scenario he described -- the one the attorney general is "real worried about" -- is ridiculous. States that have already embraced postal balloting have implemented safeguards, including bar codes, that make the prospect of a foreign actor "easily making counterfeit ballots" impossible.

What's more, vote-by-mail programs rely on signed security envelopes that, again, prevent the scenario the attorney general described.

The Washington Post reported today that elections officials in multiple states "said it would be virtually impossible for a foreign government to achieve what Barr described."

States use a variety of safeguards to confirm the validity of mail ballots. In about half the states, ballot envelopes bear a tracking bar code or tally mark that is unique to each voter. About 15 states require signatures to be matched against voter registration. Ballots are rejected if they are not sent in regulation envelopes that vary widely from state to state in format, size and paper stock. And there is little chance, administrators said, that election officials would not detect a surge of duplicate ballots arriving from the same voter.

The article quoted Colorado's elections chief saying "there is zero chance" Barr's theory could happen in reality.

But stepping back, the problem isn't just that Barr is wrong or that he's aligned himself with Trump's pretextual nonsense. What's unsettling is the attorney general's willingness to trash what's left of his credibility by peddling a theory the typical high-school student could discredit after googling for a minute or two.

It's one thing when the nation's chief law enforcement official looks like a political operative; it's vastly worse when he looks like a foolish political operative.

Last month, more than 2,000 former Justice Department and FBI officials -- from Democratic and Republican administrations -- called for Barr to resign. That number should probably grow.