Questions about the reliability of vote totals have been growing since the Florida fiasco in 2000, and they have reoccurred since — first after Russian interference in 2016, and again now that the Iowa caucuses appear headed for at least a partial recanvass. Iowa looks like a unique screw-up of an unprecedented nature, but the general challenge may be growing rather than fading.

The potential problems or challenges to a credible vote could easily prove to be bipartisan in nature, would almost certainly be international in scope and would likely not come with an easy-to-find return address. Meanwhile, at home, recent laws anticipate that votes may not be counted until well after the polls close; even newer laws allow ballots to be collected and dropped off in bundles — a tactic known as harvesting, which is legal in California.

When the 2018 elections rolled through California’s Orange County, every congressional Republican incumbent was defeated — definitely a blue wave. “Huge numbers of last-minute ballot submissions delayed election results in several Orange County congressional races,” wrote commentator Daniel Allott for the Washington Examiner, in a deep dive into what happened in Orange County in November 2018. “All of them showed the Republican candidate ahead on election night, but every Democrat went on to win once the ballots were counted.”

That’s partly because California law allows for it. But in Orange County, the numbers broke records. “In [Orange County], 62% of the ballots from the 2018 election — 689,756 of 1,106,729 — were absentee ballots,” former Orange County GOP chairman Scott Baugh wrote in an autopsy of what was behind the Republican wipe-out.

“Thousands of votes were turned in by ballot harvesters in stacks of 100s and 200s,” Baugh continued, citing the county’s registrar of voters.

Orange County is now home to more people than the population of 20 states. But what raised Baugh’s eyebrows was the fact that approximately 250,000 of the late-arriving ballots in his county were from “inactive voters,” — so classified by state law because he or she hadn’t voted in four or more years. The flood of late voters combined with the new, legal practice of harvesting absentee votes, and the sudden return of “inactive voters” to the polls disturbed more than Baugh. The Institute for Fair Elections, which researches election fraud in Southern California, produced a long list of Orange County irregularities, including the registration of 20 voters at a dog park and 71 at a Starbucks.

California’s approach to voter registration opens the door to manipulation, in part because our system assumes everyone will play by the rules.

The danger to democracy is that it is becoming easier to identify voters who have moved, to obtain their personal data on the deep Web — the Social Security number is the key — and then to change their addresses to which their ballots are to be mailed. Without proper safeguards, it may be possible to change the new address back to the old address at the conclusion of the fraud to erase any trail of mischief. FBI agents should be assigned to every county board of election to monitor fraud and interference.

This isn’t to say that foreign powers won’t muck about in our elections; our intelligence agencies say that is already underway. A competent adversary — think China or Iran — could still seek to punish President Trump for a term of unpredictable and often aggressive confrontation, and retaliate by targeting counties with heavy concentrations of Trump voters. That is more or less what the Russians did to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

You don’t need a James Bond villain or the ever-useful Putin threat to arrive as the wrecker of confidence in election results. You don’t need enemies of Trump or the eventual Democratic nominee. A plausible meddler in the “people’s vote” can simply be an amoral individual shrugging their shoulders, manipulating rules and the ever-changing Web to access information for profit, and responding to condemnation with the classic excuse of many gangsters: “It’s just business.”

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