Millions of California ballots were simply unused, not ‘unaccounted for,’ experts say

By Jeff Cercone,
January 26, 2023

A conservative group opposed to mass voting by mail is using millions of unused ballots in California – one of eight states that conducts all-mail elections — to make a misleading claim.

A recent report by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group that has been critical of mail voting, said that in California, there were "10 million mail ballots unaccounted for" in the November midterm election. 

The Public Interest Legal Foundation is chaired by Cleta Mitchell, who, as a lawyer for former President Donald Trump’s campaign, was on the phone with Trump when he asked Georgia’s secretary of state to "find" enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in that state.

The report was cited in headlines and articles on several conservative media sites, including Breitbart, The Daily Signal and The Epoch Times. 

The headlines also were shared in social media posts that were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

Election officials and experts said the ballots are not considered to be "unaccounted for" and are not evidence of a problem, as the report’s language implies. They are simply ballots that voters didn’t cast. 

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When contacted for comment, Lauren Bowman, a Public Interest Legal Foundation spokesperson, said that some of the ballots that weren’t returned "probably ended up in landfills," and that "millions of ballots should not be in trash cans and recycling bins while an election is taking place." 

Experts we contacted said they do not consider unreturned ballots to be missing or unaccounted for. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission refers to unreturned ballots as "unknown," PolitiFact reported in 2020 after a similar claim about missing ballots by J. Christian Adams, the Public Interest Legal Foundation's president and general counsel.

Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, an advocacy group that aims to improve the election process, said most of the unreturned ballots were likely simply discarded.

Alexander said although the state can’t know specifically what happened to them, "we have a pretty good idea about what happened to those ballots. Most of them ended up in the trash or recycling bin," she said.

Alexander said the state has a "number of very good safeguards in place to ensure nobody has voted twice."

Alexander said that counties try to keep voters’ information up to date, but that’s challenging in a state where many people frequently change their address, including college students and homeless people. 

"It is definitely true that some ballots do not reach voters, and these typically come back to the elections office," she said.

The foundation noted that some ballots were rejected because they were missing signatures on the envelopes or arrived past the receipt deadline. Alexander said these are common mistakes for voters new to voting by mail.

"These problems with ballots being rejected are not a sign of fraud or attempted fraud," she said. They are "examples of the complexity of the vote-by-mail process and voters' unfamiliarity with some of the intricate details." {Full Story}