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‘Barr has gone off the rails’: The attorney general’s new comments are stunning even his fiercest critics

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Attorney General William Barr. (Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals)

Attorney General Bill Barr sparked outrage once again on Tuesday when a new round of his dangerous and inflammatory comments about voting by mail were published in the Chicago Tribune.

In a new column by John Kass, Barr floated more of his baseless fearmongering about mail-in votes, while hypocritically criticizing those who are afraid of President Donald Trump’s threat to democracy.

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First, echoing Trump but putting his own spin on it, Barr attacked mail-in voting, which has existed for generations:

“Just think about the way we vote now,” Barr said. “You have a precinct, your name is on a list, you go in and say who you are, you go behind a curtain, no one is allowed to go in there to influence you, and no one can tell how you voted. All of that is gone with mail-in voting. There’s no secret vote. You have to associate the envelope in the mailing and the name of who’s sending it in, with the ballot.

“There’s no more secret vote with mail-in vote. A secret vote prevents selling and buying votes. So now we’re back in the business of selling and buying votes. Capricious distribution of ballots means (ballot) harvesting, undue influence, outright coercion, paying off a postman, here’s a few hundred dollars, give me some of your ballots,” the attorney general said.

Barr has made similar comments about the practice of voting by mail undermining the secret ballot before, which have been debunked. As CNN reported:

Elections experts say Barr is wrongly suggesting that mail-in ballots somehow violate people’s privacy and that he is ignoring safeguards that are in place to ensure the security of people’s ballots when they vote by mail.

Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine, professor and one of the nation’s top experts in election law, told CNN, “There is no validity to this claim and it shows once again that either AG Barr has not done even a rudimentary amount of research into how mail-in balloting actually works or he’s deliberately obfuscating.”

But Barr isn’t simply wrong. His attacks on voting by mail are simply nonsensical and contradictory. In a recent interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Barr attacked voting by mail while praising absentee voting:

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I have no problem with — I voted by absentee ballot, not by mail. I actually went to the office to cast my vote, but absentee ballots are fine.

Of course, absentee voting is simply a form of voting by mail. The terms are often interchangeable, though sometimes they have slightly different meanings in particular jurisdictions. But importantly, Barr’s objection to voting by mail, if it were true, would apply just as strongly to absentee ballots as to mail-in ballots, which are typically identical. Even if he dropped off his absentee ballot at the election office, he almost certainly placed it in an envelope with his identifying information — exactly what he claimed to be worried about when it comes to voting by mail.

CNN’s Abby Philip added: “Several states have voted almost entirely by mail for years. It makes no sense that suddenly there would be a rash of “buying and selling” of votes. There is no evidence to support this claim, yet Barr keeps making it.”

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The only conclusion we can draw, then, is that Barr has no principled objections to voting by mail. He’s just making up rationalizations for some other purpose.

The Chicago Times column continued:

“You know liberals project,” Barr said. “All this bulls— about how the president is going to stay in office and seize power? I’ve never heard of any of that crap. I mean, I’m the attorney general. I would think I would have heard about it. They are projecting. They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote.

“Someone will say the president just won Nevada. ‘Oh, wait a minute! We just discovered 100,000 ballots! Every vote will be counted!’ Yeah, but we don’t know where these freaking votes came from,” Barr said, promising to watch “Key Largo.”

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First, it should be noted that attorney generals don’t usually talk this way. Dismissing and demeaning “liberals” (or conservatives!) as a group should not be the rhetoric of the person in charge of federal law enforcement in the United States; it suggests not only that he cannot fairly enforce the laws but that he has no interest in even appearing to do so impartially.

Second, it’s absolutely absurd for Barr to go from complaining that Democrats “are creating an incendiary situation where there will be a loss of confidence in the vote” to floating a completely baseless hypothetical in which 100,000 ballots will appear out of nowhere. And he has the nerve of saying his critics of projecting. (He has previously been caught spreading false claims about a prosecution of mass vote fraud that turned out to be completely wrong.)

Third and finally, Barr’s claim that there’s been no private discussion of Trump trying to stay in office and seize power despite an election loss is not reassuring precisely because of everything else he said. Trump and Barr don’t need to have private discussions to plan to undermine the November election because they’re doing it all in public. Barr and Trump are both spreading bogus information about voting by mail, and suggesting that Democrats will use fraud to change the results of the election. They’re undermining normal and legitimate elections procedures and dismissing any criticism of them as delusional. This is how you lay the groundwork for rejecting an election result.

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And Trump hasn’t made a secret of the fact that he’s open to rejecting the results of the election. He has said, in public:

  •  “[The] only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged”
  • “The Dems are trying to win an election in 2020 that they know they cannot legitimately win!”
  • Asked if he’ll accept the results if he loses, he said: “I have to see. I’m not just going to say yes. I’m not going to say no. …  I’m not a good loser. I don’t like to lose. I don’t lose too often.”

So Trump already has opened the door to rejecting the election results, and Barr has opened the door to concocting false claims to legally contest the results. The plan is perfectly clear, the only question remaining is what they think they can get away with and how far they’ll push it.

“AG Barr has gone off the rails,” said Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, a legal reporter and critic of the attorney general. “He is spreading dangerous disinformation about voter fraud designed to undermine the legitimacy of the election. And he remains the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. His slide into delusional paranoia is profoundly alarming.”

“This from Attorney General Barr continues to be extremely incorrect and harmful,” said reporter Grace Panetta. “You absolutely do still have a secret when you vote by mail because you sign the envelope your ballot comes in, not the actual ballot itself. The envelope and the ballot are kept separate.”

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