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Trump’s most powerful ally in undermining the election: William Barr

As Donald Trump continues to sow doubt about the integrity of the US election, he has found a remarkably powerful ally in William Barr, the US attorney general, who has not only enthusiastically embraced the president’s claims but also spread misinformation on his own.

Barr has falsely said foreign nations could print counterfeit ballots, something intelligence officials say there’s no evidence of and would be nearly impossible. After Trump encouraged North Carolina voters to vote twice, which is illegal, Barr declined to definitively say it was illegal, instead saying he wasn’t familiar with the laws in every state. (A Department of Justice handbook makes it clear that it’s a crime to vote more than once in any election involving a federal office). Barr also lied on CNN earlier this month and said that a Texas man was indicted for filling out 1,700 mail-in ballots. That never happened and the justice department later conceded Barr was wrong.

More recently, with mail-in voting underway, Barr has repeatedly said voting by mail allows government officials to see who someone voted for, a claim debunked by election experts who point to numerous steps election officials take to preserve voters’ anonymity, including ballot privacy sleeves, when it comes to mail-in votes.

The justice department has powerful civil and criminal enforcement tools it uses to protect voting rights and there are several ways a politically motivated department could bring havoc in an election where there will likely be a wait – and legal fights – after election day as states count ballots. When the justice department gets involved in a voting dispute, courts tend to pay attention because the agency has unmatched legal credibility.

“This is completely anathema to the role of the attorney general based on my experience at the justice department,” said Chiraag Bains, a former justice department attorney who is now director of legal strategies at Demos, a civil rights thinktank.

Barr’s comments fit into a larger pattern that reflect a willingness to deploy the resources of the justice department to suit Trump’s political interests. Such a posture, especially around voting, is deeply alarming, say former justice department officials and civil rights advocates. The justice department, charged with enforcing the Voting Rights Act and other laws protecting Americans’ right to vote, has long been seen as a beacon of credibility, assuring the public of a fair election in which everyone’s vote will count. Barr is now destroying that reputation, former officials say.

“It is really dangerous, grossly irresponsible,” said Vanita Gupta, who led the department’s civil rights division under Barack Obama and is now CEO and president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “[The justice department] needs to be a credible institution protecting voting rights and giving voters confidence that their right to vote will be protected … instead here we have an attorney general who uses his bully pulpit to continue to sow disinformation about voting.”

The justice department did not immediately return a request for comment.

David Iglesias, a former US attorney in New Mexico who was one of several prosecutors fired in late 2006 in what would later become a major political scandal, said he could not recall a prior attorney general making comments around voting similar to the ones that Barr had made. The attorney general usually speaks very carefully.

“Normally when the AG speaks, he or she has significant information backing up everything he says. And yet, when I read these quotes, it seems as though there’s nothing but smoke and mirrors backing this up,” Iglesias said.

Barr has offered no substantial support for his accusations, but has repeatedly said his claims about counterfeit ballots are based on “logic.

Barr’s comments appear to be “calculated”, Bains said, to create the narrative that voter fraud is a widespread problem to justify voting restrictions. While the department’s voting section, responsible for enforcing the Voting Rights Act and other civil voting laws, has been extremely quiet under Trump, Bains said he was worried the department could use its prosecutorial power to intimidate voters. In 2018, when Jeff Sessions led the justice department, a US attorney in North Carolina trumpeted illegal voting charges against 19 immigrants, even though many of them appeared to be mistakes.

“The mere fact of a trumped-up criminal investigation can make someone’s life miserable and can deter other people from exercising their right to vote,” Bains said. “He should be out there suing states that have thrown out barriers, not justifying those barriers in the public square.”

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