The Arizona election audit, a kind of Renaissance fair for deranged conspiracy theorists and Donald Trump dead-enders, has finally wound down its work, returning nearly 2.1 million ballots to county officials after they were massaged, squinted at, passed under UV lights and examined for traces of bamboo to see if they might have come from Asia (I kid you not). We await the final report, which may at last reveal that it was aliens from the planet Xerpdorp, working with George Soros and D.B. Cooper, who stole the state’s election.

You might say that I shouldn’t joke about this, since it’s part of a wide-reaching attack on the U.S. system of elections. But that’s just the point: The preservation of our democracy may depend in no small part on Republicans continuing to be too incompetent to steal future elections.

Not all Republicans, of course; there are lots of people in the GOP who are quite smart. But the ones working hardest on undermining our system are the looniest bunch the party could find.

The Maricopa County audit, which Trump has insisted all along would show that he really won the state, has been such a farce that even many Arizona Republicans have tried to distance themselves from it. GOP state senators are feuding with one another over whose fault it is; the governor says, “I don’t think we should spend any more time thinking about 2020”; and the whole thing has proved to be a gigantic embarrassment.

Yet Republicans in other states, from Pennsylvania to Michigan, are trying to organize similar “audits,” causing more internal disarray. To which Democrats could almost breathe a sigh of relief. If the GOP is going to keep trying to steal elections, better if they assign their worst and dimmest to the task.

To understand just how much the Republican Party has changed, it’s instructive to think back to the last contested election before 2020, in 2000. When the results in Florida were thrown into uncertainty, the GOP mobilized its smartest and most ruthless operatives to make sure the outcome was secured in George W. Bush’s favor. The enterprise was run by the cool and efficient James Baker, who had been a Cabinet secretary and chief of staff to two presidents.

Baker assembled a team of the party’s best lawyers, including three future Supreme Court justices — John G. Roberts Jr., Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — to fight the battle in state and federal courts. There was no “release the Kraken” courtroom buffoonery and no Four Seasons Total Landscaping-style face plants. The drama may have been chaotic, but inside the chaos was a highly competent group of Republican professionals who navigated it all the way to the Supreme Court, where five Republican justices handed the victory to Bush.

Now imagine if people like them — rather than Rudolph W. Giuliani, a bunch of QAnon believers and the MyPillow guy — were the ones trying to steal elections today.

In fact, one of the most remarkable things about 2020 is that Trump himself never summoned the wherewithal to put together a real effort to steal the election. Though he had been saying for months that fraud was rampant and any outcome other than him winning was illegitimate by definition, on Election Day he seemed to be caught off guard. All his legal and PR maneuvering in the subsequent days was ad hoc and incompetent, one of the consequences of which was that many Republicans in his own government and at the state level were reluctant to help him.

In different circumstances, with a more skillfully planned and executed election theft, that might not have been the case.

So it would be wrong to say that we have nothing to worry about. This is only one part of a broader picture, which is that nearly everyone in the Republican Party has committed themselves to the idea that our election system must be altered so that it’s almost impossible for them to lose. They have put together a far-reaching and comprehensive effort that includes extreme gerrymandering; voter suppression measures to make it as difficult and cumbersome as possible for certain people to make it to the polls in the first place; and, perhaps most disturbingly, the creation of new avenues for state-level Republicans, especially GOP-dominated legislatures, to seize control of election administration and create the means for them to keep a thumb on the scale from beginning to end.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) on July 30 said H.R. 4 was necessary because of states like Pennsylvania that were considering “onerous” voting restrictions. (The Washington Post)

In Arizona, for example, Republicans stripped the Democratic secretary of state of her authority to defend the state against election-related lawsuits, transferring that authority to the Republican attorney general. In Georgia, legislators revamped the state election board, removing the secretary of state and putting power in their own hands. They also changed the law so bipartisan local election boards would be replaced by all-Republican boards where the GOP controls county government, and they are already moving toward taking control of the election board in heavily Democratic Fulton County.

That’s where the real, grave danger lies. It has to be fought via the courts, Congress (which ought to pass the For the People Act, as unlikely as that seems right now) and the Justice Department, as well as ground organizing to get as many people as possible to the polls no matter the impediments Republicans impose.

But when Democrats watch a farce like the Arizona audit play itself out, they ought to say a word of thanks. If these people knew what they were doing, it could be even worse.