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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Huge pandemic turnout, deep divides, Trump diversions made 2020 unique

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in August.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in August. Credit: Pool / Getty Images / TNS / Tom Williams

Presidents usually win reelection, but not always. Ballot counts can spark big court fights, but not always.

Despite several normal features of a White House contest, this one had distinctions that grow more evident as state-by-state ballot tabulations grind on.

For one, the turnout on both sides was huge and motivated, showing healthy participation during a pandemic year — amid massive reliance on the U.S. mail, expanded early voting and social distancing at the polls. At least 159.8 million Americans voted, according to projections by NBC. That's a record. As a percentage of eligible citizens, it's the highest rate since 1900.

Another unique aspect of the race: The ways an incumbent president diverted federal resources for self-promotion.

For instance, Trump-appointed overseers of the Postal Service continued to draw fire on Wednesday. Weeks ago, the president had suggested that reducing resources for the service would discourage mail-in voting, which he asserted without evidence is more fraud-prone than voting in person.

Now U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan has bashed the Postal Service for refusing to comply with a last-minute order to deploy postal inspectors to sweep facilities for undelivered ballots. "Someone may have to pay a price for that," Sullivan said. The judge even raised the possibility of seeking testimony from Trump's Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a prominent Republican fundraiser.

Other examples abound. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany used her highly visible position on the public payroll to promote her boss's campaign. Also, a video hailing Trump's purported successes was posted on the Interior Department's official website. And the president’s main political operation was moved this week from his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, to the White House complex. This echoed Trump's use of the South Lawn for his speech to the GOP convention.

In September, Attorney General William Barr reportedly briefed Trump on Pennsylvania ballot issues. That issue concerned nine errant ballots. It is not yet known if Barr will have a further role in trying to suppress ballot counts.

Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday launched his own brand of bitter public attacks against the state ballot count in Pennsylvania. Not long ago, the ex-mayor usurped State Department turf when he tried to prod Ukrainian leaders to announce an overseas "investigation" of Biden.

Trump, meanwhile, has made clear he'd like his judicial appointees to help as needed in turning the count process in his favor.

Barr's Justice Department assigned investigations before the election that appeared geared toward slamming the Democratic Party. But last month, Barr told members of Congress that a report on the origins of Trump's Russia scandal would not be ready by the election.

In a democracy, diverting public resources for private campaign purposes is considered an abuse. If Biden wins, the precedent is set for him to indulge in similar conduct. If Trump manages to prevail, he can simply carry on as before, blurring public and private interests.