COLUMBUS, Ohio — The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last week that Stark County must purchase voting machines from a company baselessly accused by the former president and his allies of rigging an election.
The dispute traces back to the Stark County Board of Elections’ December 2020 directive to the county commission to purchase its new machinery from Dominion Voting Systems.
The board, which typically controls such decisions, voted unanimously to acquire voting machines from Dominion. Stark County has done business with the company, the only vendor offering to buy back the county’s old machines, since 2013.
The all-Republican County Commission, however, claimed that other vendors offered cheaper deals when analyzed over the 10 years of the contract.
Lingering over the issue, however, is President Donald Trump’s repeated lie, echoed by allies with large media profiles like Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, that Dominion machines were used to fix the presidential election. The theories have shifted in form, sometimes alleging a connection between Dominion and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013.
On March 10, the County Commission struck down the Board’s directive. In a resolution, the board raised mostly budgetary concerns, but noted a “potential cloud” or “public perception or concern regarding a vendor’s long-term viability” regarding Dominion.
The Board of Elections, comprised of four bipartisan board members and a staff directed by the Stark County GOP Chairman, criticized the decision.
“It’s unfortunate that conspiracy theories which have proven to be false have apparently more influence on the Commissioners’ office than the professionals at the Board of Elections,” the board said in a statement to IdeaStream, a public broadcaster.
The chairman of the county board, Sam Ferrucio, calling in to a local talk radio program, made similar comments.
“It’s all based on the conspiracy theorists,” he said. “That’s where this is coming from.”
A post-election audit from the Ohio Secretary of State found presidential election results in the state to be 99.98% accurate. Trump won Stark County by about 18 points.
This winter, the three commissioners made public statements about a heavy load of constituent calls from Trump supporters over the usually esoteric issue of county-level voting machine procurement. While the county board points to the conspiracy theories, the commissioners say they made a purely fiscal decision.
“To me it was all the budgetary concerns,” said Commissioner Richard Regula in an interview with the Ohio Capital Journal.
“Did we get lot of calls, yeah. It’s the most calls, most emails I’ve ever gotten on any one issue. There were lots of claims out there. Nothing has ever been proven to me. I heard a lot about Maricopa County, Arizona … I read the MyPillow guy, looked at various things, but no one has proven to me that anybody hacked into any machine. No one has proven to me that the election was stolen. This was all about the process.”
(In Maricopa County, Arizona, Republicans in the state Senate ordered a bizarre “audit” of votes that included a search for secret watermarks or traces of bamboo on ballots that were cast, either of which would purportedly indicate fraud. A partial recount and two election audits produced no evidence of election fraud in Arizona.)
Aaron Ockerman, director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said it’s generally the boards of elections’ decisions as to what voter machines counties purchase. As for what sparked the Stark County controversy, he said he doesn’t buy the budgetary concerns.
“The thing that got the ball rolling was certainly the angst of the moment surrounding Dominion Voter Systems,” he said.
The board, incensed by the commission’s refusal, filed a lawsuit with the Ohio Supreme Court, seeking to force the commission to buy Dominion machines. The goal was to implement them for the May 4 primary election.
The court was left to answer a somewhat narrow legal question of who has authority to select a county’s voter technology, between the board of election or the county commission.
In a 6-1 decision, the justices found it’s up the boards of election. However, election officials said they will not be able to implement the new machines before a special congressional election in August.
Further complicating the matter, on May 18, an organization called Look Ahead America filed a lawsuit in Stark County Court of Common Pleas, alleging violations of open meetings laws as the Board of Elections deliberated on the Dominion matter.
Look Ahead America was founded by Matt Braynard, a former Trump campaign staffer. The group is reportedly also disputing Georgia’s presidential election results. While the lawsuit focuses on alleged open meetings violations, Braynard raised several issues with the use of Dominion machines in an interview.
He said some Look Ahead America staff are also working on the Arizona audit.
“Some of the people who work in our organization are also working on the audit, but we have nothing to do with it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it being over, because all those people that are volunteering for it, I look forward to getting them to volunteer for my organization doing voter registration and grassroots organizing.”
A spokeswoman for Dominion provided a statement but declined specific questions.
“We appreciate the decision of the [Supreme] Court and look forward to continuing our longstanding support of Stark County in its elections,” the company said.
The dispute speaks to the collateral damage of Trump’s lie claiming he lost the election only due to voter fraud. An April 2021 Reuters/Ipsos poll found 55% of Republicans believe Trump’s 2020 loss resulted from illegal voting or vote rigging. Dominion filed several lawsuits, still ongoing, against Fox News, Lindell, and Trump lawyers Giuliani and Sidney Powell, all centered on their alleged perpetuation of the lie.
On Friday, Republicans in the U.S. Senate, minus a select few defections, scuttled an effort to establish an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the origins of a seditious mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. The mob, under mistaken belief of a rigged election, sought to thwart congressional certification of the election.
Regula said he ultimately trusts the Dominion machines will deliver free and fair elections. He said Ohio hosted a proper election in 2020. He said there could have been some “shenanigans” in other states, but largely declined comment on whether there was widespread election fraud in 2020.
“I’m not gonna go down that road. It’s behind us,” he said. “Biden is president of the United States. Republicans are going to have to work harder in the midterm elections, harder in the presidential elections in 2024. We just need to move forward.”
Stark County Board of Elections Director Jeff Matthews, as well as the county’s two other commissioners, did not respond to inquiries.