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In this Nov. 1, 2020, file photo, envelopes containing ballots are shown at a San Francisco Department of Elections at a voting center in San Francisco. (AP) In this Nov. 1, 2020, file photo, envelopes containing ballots are shown at a San Francisco Department of Elections at a voting center in San Francisco. (AP)

In this Nov. 1, 2020, file photo, envelopes containing ballots are shown at a San Francisco Department of Elections at a voting center in San Francisco. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman September 14, 2021

Fact-checking the misleading claim about uncounted ballots in 2020

If Your Time is short

  • The U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that of 90.7 million ballots mailed in the U.S. for the November 2020 election, about 16.8% were not returned or listed in an "unknown" status.

  • The Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative group with ties to former President Donald Trump, misinterpreted that report to argue against voting by mail.

  • Due to the pandemic, more states sent out mail ballots to all active voters, and overall voting by mail increased compared with 2016.

Former President Donald Trump and his allies haven’t abandoned their argument that voting by mail can’t be trusted.

"Stunning report: nearly 15 million mail-in ballots were not counted in the 2020 election," stated a Sept. 4 Instagram post from a pro-Trump site.

The image in the post was a headline on an article from the site, The article cited a report by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative group headed by J. Christian Adams, who served on Trump’s short-lived voting integrity commission and has been critical of voting by mail. The group’s report highlights the number of mail ballots that were "unaccounted for" because they were undeliverable, rejected or listed in federal data as "unknown."

Trump touted the foundation’s report in a fundraising email stating: "We. Cannot. Trust. Mail. In. Ballots." Trump’s website also promoted Adams’ interview with Breitbart, a conservative news outlet, in which Adams argued that voting by mail is a "mess."

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The reference to a "stunning report" gives the impression that a major voting irregularity was uncovered in the report. That’s not the case. Moreover, the post implies that 15 million mail ballots that should have been counted were not tabulated. That’s a misinterpretation of data from a federal report about mailed ballots of "unknown" status.

It’s an example of how a bit of government data can be twisted to tell a misleading story. 

The caption on the Instagram post cited the statistic as evidence that there are "serious risks of relying heavily on mail-in-ballots." 

This ignores the evidence from election officials nationwide, including some in Trump’s administration, affirming that the 2020 election was "the most secure in American history." 

And, election experts say, it ignores the principal reason that millions of mailed ballots legitimately end up in the "unknown" category: Some people just don’t vote. 

The report from Adams’ group

Adams’ group released a two-page report in August that stated that of the 90.6 million ballots sent to voters, the outcome of 14.7 million ballots was "unknown." That works out to about 16.2% of the mail ballots.

"This report is about comparing mail balloting to in person voting," Lauren Bowman, a spokesperson for the group, told PolitiFact. "We are pointing out major system breakdowns that occur when elections are conducted by mass vote by mail."

The foundation wrote that there are various reasons why a ballot may be in the "unknown" category: "A ballot can be put in the wrong mailbox and land in an unfriendly neighbor’s trash. It can be thrown out with your unpaid bills. It can be left outside for the wind to carry the last mile (like seen in Nevada in 2020). Election officials simply do not know what happened. Unknown ballots are the greatest blind spot in the American electoral system." (The Nevada reference pertains to news reports about 10 ballots found on a road in the Las Vegas area in November.)

But that characterization of unknown ballots leaves a misleading impression, because it fails to mention the obvious reason many ballots ended up in the "unknown" category: A lot of mail ballots in 2020 were sent to voters automatically and then not returned by them, said Charles Stewart, an MIT political scientist.

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The Election Assistance Commission report

The numbers in the conservative group’s report come from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s report about the 2020 election, based on data collected from election officials nationwide. The agency, established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, is an independent, bipartisan commission that develops guidance to help election administrators meet the law’s requirements.

The EAC asked election officials to provide data on the outcome of mail ballots, including how many they sent that were undeliverable, surrendered, spoiled or replaced or had an unknown status. The data is only as good as the data provided by the election officials. About a half dozen states reported that the data for unknown ballots was not available or that it didn’t apply, or they reported zero unknown ballots. In some states, the number of unknown ballots was available for only some jurisdictions.

The commission’s report showed that of the approximately 90.7 million ballots sent by mail to voters in the United States, about 16.8% ultimately landed in the unknown status. That works out to about 15 million, which is close to the figure cited by the foundation. The commission doesn’t break down the ballots in the "unknown" category, but says it "included voters who were transmitted a mailed ballot but chose not to vote."

Millions of these ballots are in states that mail ballots to every active voter — including states that have done so for years and those that did so in 2020 because of the pandemic. Adams’ group compiled a list of the 10 counties that it said had the highest number of "unknown" ballots, and nine of them were in states that mailed ballots to everyone, including California, Nevada and New Jersey. The other county was Maricopa County, Ariz., where about 75% of voters were on the permanent early-voting list, which means they get a mailed ballot for every election.

"The five states that decided to mail ballots to all active-status voters solely because of the pandemic saw an awful lot of those ballots unreturned," Stewart said. "There is no evidence of fraud related to these unreturned ballots in these states."

A high percentage of unknown-status ballots is a logical result of ballots being mailed automatically to all voters, said Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. 

"But it would be a mistake to call people choosing not to vote a ‘mess,’" Burden said. States generally have procedures to ensure the security of the system so that unused mail ballots are not submitted fraudulently, Burden said. 

An unreturned mail ballot is not so different from an unused ballot at an in-person polling place,  election experts said. It represents someone who chose not to vote.

"In a state that makes it hard to vote by mail and requires almost everyone to vote in person, we don’t say that the number of registered voters who don’t cast an in-person ballot are ‘unknown voters’ and that there is something nefarious about that," Stewart said.

The Election Assistance Commission’s report stated that while the number of ballots mailed by election officials more than doubled in 2020 compared with 2016, "the mailed ballot return count and rejection rates were not significantly different."

In its own report, Adams’ group said that in 2016, there were 41.6 million ballots sent and 5.9 million that landed in the "unknown" category, or about 14.3%. That means that as a percentage, slightly more ballots in 2020 ended up in the unknown category, which isn’t surprising considering that more states sent mail ballots to all active voters because of the pandemic.

Our ruling

An Instagram post said, "Stunning report: Nearly 15 million mail-in ballots were not counted in the 2020 election."

The post leaves the impression that these ballots  should have been tabulated but were not. That’s a misleading interpretation of federal data about mailed ballots that ended up in the "unknown" category, which includes ballots that were mailed to people but not sent back because they chose not to vote. 

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission said that of about 90.7 million mail ballots sent out for the November 2020 election, about 15 million were ultimately placed in an "unknown" category.  Millions of these ballots were in states that issued ballots automatically to all registered voters because of the pandemic.

There’s no evidence that these ballots were improperly excluded from tabulation.

This claim has an element of truth, but leaves out important context that could give a different impression. We rate this claim Mostly False. 

PolitiFact senior correspondent Louis Jacobson contributed to this fact-check.

Our Sources

U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Report about 2020 election, 2021

Washington Post, Trump and the next big, bogus stolen-election claim, Sept. 8, 2021

Public Interest Legal Foundation, Nearly 15 Million Mail Ballots Went Unaccounted for in 2020 Election, STUNNING REPORT: Nearly 15 Million Mail-in-Ballots Were Not Counted In 2020 Election, Sept. 3, 2021

Breitbart, J. Christian Adams: 15 Million Mail Ballots Unaccounted For in 2020 Election, Aug. 28, 2021

8 News Now, Mail-in ballots from Las Vegas neighborhood found in road miles away, I-Team prompts investigation, Oct. 21, 2021

CISA, Joint statement from elections infrastructure government coordinating council and the election infrastructure sector coordinating executive committees, Nov. 12, 2021

PolitiFact, The misleading claim that millions of absentee ballots end up ‘missing or in landfills’ June 9, 2020

PolitiFact, Donald Trump says there's 'substantial evidence of voter fraud.' There isn't, Jan. 4, 2018

Email interview, Lauren Bowman, Public Interest Legal Foundation spokesperson, Sept. 9, 2021

Email and telephone interview, Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the elections program at Democracy Fund, Sept. 10, 2021

Email interview, Amber McReynolds, Founding CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, Sept 10, 2021

Email interview, Barry Burden, political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sept. 10, 2021

Email interview, Charles Stewart, MIT political science professor, Sept. 10, 2021

Email interview, Tate Fall, U.S. Election Assistance Commission spokesperson, Sept. 14, 2021


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