Late last year, amid rampant false claims of a stolen presidential election, officials in a Trump-loving county in Ohio took a stand: They voted 4 to 0 to buy Dominion voting machines.
“We knew exactly what we were getting into,” said Matthews, who has worked on the elections board for 30 years.
Two months later, Stark County has yet to replace its aging voting equipment while May primaries loom. The all-GOP board of commissioners has fielded an unprecedented deluge of upset callers and spent a recent meeting peppering election staff with doubts and questions. Matthews says officials could go to court to push commissioners to make the purchase.
A former Trump campaign strategist’s video urging people to “warn” Stark County authorities against moving ahead just fueled a new round of complaints, Matthews said, many of them from out of state.
Trump has left office, but the baseless election fraud theories that he fomented still hold sway nationwide, weeks after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol over his false claims to victory. The situation in Stark County is a testament to how viral accusations repeatedly debunked by courts and authorities have persisted, hanging over local decision-making and saddling officials with the daunting task of somehow rebuilding public trust. The fallout could have implications for Dominion’s multibillion-dollar lawsuits against Trump allies, as the company seeks to hold them accountable and show their accusations have damaged its business.
“You’re going with the one with the cloud right now, okay, over its head,” one Stark County commissioner said at a meeting last week about the planned purchase. “How can you as a board of elections, choosing Dominion with the cloud — how can you convince [voters] that this is going to be as valid as you can get an election, they’ll all be counted?”
Matthews lamented commissioners’ focus on “clearly debunked” claims.
“We do believe in the need of the citizens to trust the process,” Matthews, a 63-year-old resident of North Canton, said in an interview. “Because the alternatives are a breakdown, a societal breakdown and disregard for the rule of law. And I think that this past year gave us a few glimpses into that future.”
But for Matthews, the solution is for elected officials nationwide to firmly move on. He said he does not know how the commissioners “could hang on to these stories — unless it’s just a lack of political will to stand up to the disinformation.”
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol “should have been a wake-up call to any elected official that continues to acknowledge any of these conspiracy theories,” he said.
Stark County’s three commissioners did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment but have emphasized they want to give an important purchase the attention it deserves.
The county of about 370,000 is far from the only one still struggling with misinformation promoted by Trump, his legal team and many supportive lawmakers. Election officials in battleground states are trying undo the damage to trust in their voting systems.
Supervisors in Arizona’s largest county, which uses Dominion equipment, voted last month to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an audit of its election systems despite repeated validations of their 2020 results. At a February meeting of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, things grew heated as Republican member Robert Spindell Jr. raised Dominion’s “alleged problems throughout the country.”
“Bob, that is — that is not true,” Spindell’s Democratic colleague Ann Jacobs cut in. For a while, they talked over each other, Jacobs raising her voice in frustration.
“The fact that people think it is because you keep saying it!” Jacobs told him. “But it’s a lie!”
In Michigan, Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy took responsibility last fall for a human error that briefly had Joe Biden winning the normally deep-red county, a mistake that thrust Antrim County to the center of Trump supporters’ fury about Dominion. But false claims about her small county’s Dominion equipment have not gone away.
Hundreds of people have called and emailed, often angry and sometimes vulgar. “I responded to everybody,” says Guy, a Republican. “Everybody!”
Guy, 59, defends Dominion as “an honest company.” When the firm filed its first defamation lawsuit over the election smears, she said, “My first thought was … ‘Good for them.' ”
Dominion says in its lawsuit against Sidney Powell — the pro-Trump lawyer who railed against Dominion on TV, on social media and at a news conference alongside Rudolph W. Giuliani — that lawmakers in many states have recently said they want to reassess contracts with the company.
Dominion’s lawsuits against Powell and Giuliani and its warning letters to many others have pushed some purveyors of misinformation to issue retractions or remove content. Fox News Channel just canceled the show of Trump ally Lou Dobbs after Dobbs was sued by Smartmatic, another company targeted by baseless claims of wrongdoing in the November election.
But dispelling the bad information is far harder than putting it out into the world, said Sinan Aral, an MIT professor whose research shows “false news travels far faster than the truth,” as he puts it.
“Debunking information rarely catches up to the truth … and so the myth persists,” Aral said.
Kay Stimson, a vice president for government affairs at Dominion, said in a statement that it is “too early to predict the extent of the devastating impacts resulting from the disinformation and lies that continue to be spread about Dominion and its technology.”
“Dominion is proud to be serving as Stark County’s election partner, and we will continue vigorously defending the reputation of our company, our technology, and our loyal customers,” Stimson said, adding that a slew of audits and recounts have affirmed Dominion machines’ accuracy.
Stark County Commissioner Bill Smith opened last Tuesday’s meeting on the voting machines purchase by stating what the gathering was not about.
“We’d like to make clear to everyone that today’s work session is not taking place because … a specific vendor of voting equipment has been recommended," Smith said, with Matthews and his fellow commissioners assembled in a drab room of the Stark County Office Building.
But Smith went on to acknowledge the public pressure that followed election officials’ December vote: Since then, he said, his board had received “hundreds of communications from concerned citizens.”
“This response from the public has far exceeded the response any of us have ever received on any topic to come before our board,” Smith said.
Commissioners raised question after question about Dominion’s machines at Tuesday’s meeting: Why didn’t more counties in Ohio use them? If some were made in Texas, why didn’t Texas want them?
“We had mentioned there is a negative cloud in the air,” Smith said, “and whether it’s founded or not, it’s there. … Perception becomes reality.”
Matthews said that officials were supposed to discuss the purchase in December but that commissioners said they wanted “time to study it and properly vet it and not make a hasty decision.” That’s the board of elections’ job, Matthews argued, but commissioners oversee the county’s spending and have to move forward with the actual purchase.
It’s too late now to replace the machines ahead of the 2021 primaries, he said, so the new target is November. The county’s current machines, acquired from Dominion in a pinch after a roof collapse, are well past their life span.
Matthews says the matter is now in commissioners’ hands.
“They don’t appear to be in any hurry,” he said.