Last week, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) seemed to spill the beans. He said on tape that he had very recently spoken with former president Donald Trump and that Trump would launch a 2024 presidential campaignpotentially imminently. The reporter who scooped it was also told that Trump would soon travel to Iowa, which would of course be an attractive place for such an announcement.

On Tuesday, Trump’s political operation confirmed that Trump would indeed travel there for a lengthy rally on Oct. 9.

Just two minutes later, it served notice that the potential next chapter in Trump’s political life will look a lot like the last one — and reinforced that the lessons of Jan. 6 have apparently not been internalized by it or the former president.

In a fundraising email, Trump cited a claim that 15 million mail ballots went “unaccounted for” in the 2020 campaign.

“This is a very sad day for the more than 75 MILLION Americans who voted for me, and the 15 MILLION Americans whose ballots were not counted,” the email stated. “We. Cannot. Trust. Mail. In. Ballots.”

Fifteen million ballots “not counted” would be a pretty stunning number — if only it weren’t wholly misleading. Just like many of the claims that Trump promoted in the lead-up to Jan. 6 and that motivated the Capitol rioters, this one falls apart rather quickly with even the most basic scrutiny. (Not to mention that Trump did not receive “more than 75 million” votes. His popular vote total was 74.2 million, well short of Joe Biden’s 81.2 million.)

The source for Trump’s claim was a Breitbart interview with J. Christian Adams, president of the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), which has extensive ties to Trump. Adams detailed a report from his organization that has been picked up extensively and credulously on social media and in other Trump-friendly outlets such as the Epoch Times, the Right Side Broadcasting Network and Gateway Pundit. Trump also promoted the Breitbart story on his website in late August, suggesting that this will be a focal point for him.

The crux is this: Data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission show that about 15 million mail ballots that were sent to voters never actually wound up being counted in the election results, and that this suggests mail balloting is insecure and should thus be reined in.

There is, of course, a less conspiratorial reason for those ballots never being counted, and it’s that they were simply never filled out and returned. This is an extremely logical conclusion, but it’s one that the PILF all but completely glosses over in its analysis. It instead places such ballots in an “unknown” category and then speculates about other potential reasons, besides the obvious one, that they were never added to the totals.

“This means there is a wide variety of things that can happen to a ballot in the ‘unknown’ column,” it says. “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.”

It concludes: “Unknown ballots are the greatest blind spot in the American electoral system.”

The organization and others have also noted that these numbers of ballots exceed the victory margins for Biden in some key states.

The whole thing is a case study in how to mislead with legitimate and technically accurate data. And this organization has been pushing such claims for a long time. While PILF doesn’t say definitively what happened with these ballots, plenty of voter-fraud crusaders including Trump are happy to pick up the suggestion and run with it. Trump’s claim that these ballots were “were not counted” sure makes it sound like people actually attempted to cast them.

ProPublica’s Derek Willis broke this down last year, when more mainstream outlets picked up a similar PILF analysis and Trump used it to preemptively claim a “rigged election”:

Experts who study voting and use the same data PILF used in the report, which is from the Election Administration and Voting Survey produced by the federal Election Assistance Commission, say that it’s wrong to describe unreturned ballots as missing.
“Election officials ‘know’ what happened to those ballots,” said Paul Gronke, a professor at Reed College, who is the director of the Early Voting Information Center, a research group based there. “They were received by eligible citizens and not filled out. Where are they now? Most likely, in landfills,” Gronke said by email.

PolitiFact also fact-checked these claims, saying that labeling the ballots as “missing” was misleading.

The latest PILF analysis opts for the perhaps less-loaded term “unknown,” which is used by the EAC, rather than “missing.” (It has also previously used “disappeared.”) But the implication and its interpretations by Trump and others are similar. And the EAC, the source of the data, notes that ballots in this unknown category “included voters who were transmitted a mailed ballot but chose not to vote.”

PILF spokeswoman Lauren Bowman said: “These are ballots that were sent either in bulk or upon request which were not tracked and did not returned for counting. As the report explains, there are a variety of potential explanations for what could happen, ranging from benign to otherwise.”

Bowman noted that the U.S. Postal Service has said most such ballots aren’t tracked after being sent out.

Part of the problem with the implication is that many people who receive mail ballots never requested them. Some states have all mail voting, in which everyone gets ballots even if they rarely vote. Sending unrequested mail ballots also increased significantly in 2020, as elections officials expanded the practice in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

In total, for the states in which data are available, the PILF study counts 90.6 million mail ballots being sent and 14.7 million of them succumbing to an “unknown” fate — for a total of 16.2 percent that didn’t wind up resulting in recorded votes. That’s a similar percentage to 2016, when less than half that number of ballots were sent out in those states, and about 14.3 percent weren’t ultimately recorded as votes. The increase from 14.3 percent to 16.2 percent would seem consistent with many more people being sent ballots they never requested. And it would suggest there’s nothing truly remarkable about the 2020 election, given that lots of people regularly don’t return their mail ballots.

Nothing remarkable, that is, unless you’re straining hard to look for some kind of malfeasance or election insecurity, after seeing basically all of your previous allegations fall apart. In that case, it’s fodder for baseless innuendo about millions of votes that were somehow never counted but could have swung the election.

There is little question that Trump will continue pushing such things if and when he launches a new campaign — despite the consequences of such claims on Jan. 6 — and he would suddenly have a bigger platform because he would actually be a candidate.

This post has been updated with comment from PILF.