A conspiracy theory sown by former President Donald Trump and his allies to cast doubt on his loss last year has trickled down to county-level politics, impeding one Ohio county's ability to purchase new voting equipment ahead of local elections this year.
The theory falsely claims voting machines made by a company called Dominion changed votes to swing the election in favor of now-President Biden. Multiple audits and recounts in states and counties that used the company's equipment confirmed that the machines accurately recorded the vote totals last November.
But those audits and recounts haven't stopped Republican county officials in Stark County, Ohio, home to Canton, from slowing the procurement effort for new machines. Voters in the county twice voted for Barack Obama then twice — by double digits — for Donald Trump.
The controversy started in December, when the bipartisan Stark County Board of Elections voted unanimously to replace its aging voting machines with new ones from Dominion.
Since that vote, the county's three top elected officials, all Republicans, say they've been getting an earful from voters.
"The board of commissioners has received hundreds of communications from concerned citizens," County Commissioner Bill Smith said during a public meeting last month. "This response from the public has far exceeded the response any of us have received on any topic to come before our board."
During that two-hour meeting, Smith pushed the board of elections director to address voters' fears that Dominion machines are not secure.
"They just want to make sure that it's valid, it's counted. You're going with the one with the cloud, right now, over its head," he said.
That cloud is not based in fact but was created by Trump and allies such as his lawyer and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. At least one conservative group has tried to keep stirring the opposition to Stark County's Dominion purchase.
Among the strongest defenders of the purchase is the county's top elections official, Jeff Matthews, who is also chair of the local Republican Party. Matthews also leads the board that tests and certifies voting machines statewide.
During the February public meeting about the purchase, Matthews defended Dominion and the integrity of the 2020 election.
"Refusing to recognize that this election was safe, secure and accurate can be viewed as nothing less than attacking the peaceful transfer of power," Matthews said. "Some of the claims made about Dominion Voting Systems are beyond absurd and require one to suspend all critical thought."
In the weeks since that meeting, the county's commissioners have yet to approve the $6.5 million contract. With state assistance and a credit from Dominion, the machines would cost Stark County only about $1.5 million directly.
A decision could come later this month. Neither commissioners nor Matthews responded to multiple interview requests.
The wave of calls from voters questioning Dominion caught the county commissioners by surprise, according to Sam Ferruccio, the chairman of the county board of elections.
"The county commissioners were just, I think, caught off guard as to, 'Is this real or not?' " Ferruccio, a Democrat, said in an interview. "And basically, we had to, at the work session, explain to them that it's not real, these machines have worked well, we've not had any issues."
Election officials in Stark County wanted to replace their machines ahead of a local primary this year, which is expected to draw lower turnout than next year's midterms.
The particular Dominion voting machine that the county board wants to buy is a touchscreen device with a paper audit trail that was used in 11 Ohio counties last year, according to the Ohio Secretary of State's Office. Trump won all of those counties.
Post-election audits found the results in nine of those counties to be 100% accurate, according to data released by the secretary of state. The miniscule discrepancies in the other two counties were not attributed to the machines.
"Our hope is that we continue to have a really honest and open conversation about facts versus fiction," said Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for Dominion Voting Systems.
The company has made a sales representative available to answer local officials' questions, she said.
"We are showing up to do the hard work of cutting through disinformation, and at the most granular levels in Stark County," she said. "We're also very much supported by the Ohio Secretary of State's Office."
Dominion's employees have endured death threats due to the conspiracy theories, with at least one engineer continuing to live in hiding. The other way Dominion is trying to cut through the disinformation is in the courts. The company has filed massive defamation lawsuits against Giuliani and other Trump allies about their false rhetoric. Stimson says there are more such lawsuits to come.
Election administrators have worked for years to ensure there are processes in place for vetting voting machines, according to Auburn University political science professor Mitchell Brown.
The people who run elections will need to keep talking with the public to reassure them about election security, she said. Politicians and legislators should listen to election officials, too, particularly as state lawmakers author a wave of new voting laws, she said.
"Continuing to manufacture conspiracy without any credible evidence just to stir up the base, just to fundraise, just to try to keep power is really irresponsible," Brown said.