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Relive history, buy a vote machine

They're electric blue, fold into 19-pound carrying cases and have been home to millions of bits of chad.

And Pinellas County elections officials would just as soon never see them again.

So, what should the county do with its old punch-card voting machines?

Counties across Florida are starting to sell theirs. Palm Beach County, proud home to the most infamous machines of all, is auctioning theirs on eBay, the auction Web site, for at least $300.

"Would you like one? How many can I put you down for?" asked Brad Merriman, assistant county administrator in Palm Beach, on Friday afternoon.

For $300, collectors get a voting machine with a brass plaque attached, a certificate of authenticity signed by elections supervisor Theresa LePore and a picture of the canvassing board.

Oh, and best of all: 25 butterfly ballots "that buyers can use to create their own pregnant, dimpled and hanging chads," said Merriman.

For another $300, Palm Beach will throw in a ballot box.

So far, Palm Beach has bids on 102 machines, leaving just 3,595 left for bidders to snap up.

Will other counties have even this much success? Could Pinellas cover the cost of the $15-million worth of new machines the county plans to buy?

Not likely, said Merriman.

"I wish them all the luck in the world, but ours is the only one that has any real historical meaning."

In Hillsborough County, elections supervisor Pam Iorio plans to sell the county's 4,100 machines. But she has the same worry.

"We don't have the notoriety that Palm Beach had," she said. "It's not like anybody across the nation is going to feel compelled to own a Hillsborough County Vote-O-Matic."

Pinellas may be out of luck too, said Richard Walker, the county's elections operations manager.

"I think the bottom's falling out of the market for them," he said. "Fast."

Still, Fort Myers resident Hunter Wynne said he bought five machines for $10 apiece at a Lee County auction and already has eBay bids from $64 to $250 on four of them.

"I was going to keep one, but they made such a nice little profit, I don't see a reason to," he said.

Pinellas County will sell its 4,600 old machines if there's a market, said Steve Carroll, assistant county administrator. But county officials haven't decided whether to find buyers or send them to a Tampa surplus auction, the usual graveyard for old county equipment.

Betsy Steg, senior assistant county attorney, was in Carroll's office Friday and offered other suggestions for how to use the machines.

"Fish smokers!" Steg said. "We're going to use them for fish smokers."

Huh? As it turns out, the joke around county offices this week has been the tale of Ronald Budd, the former Hillsborough County elections board chairman convicted in a 1970s voting scandal. Budd became infamous for keeping an old voting machine in his backyard and using it to smoke mullet.

"I thought you were saying fish marker, and I was thinking you meant put them on an artificial reef," Carroll told Steg. "But it actually wouldn't work. They're so small, they'd float all over the Gulf of Mexico."

Given the machines' notoriety, it's unlikely any local government in the nation would buy them to use in a real election, the pair agreed. Maybe overseas? Maybe new uses are the best bet, they decided: suitcases, TV trays, plant holders.

"They're probably a little big for a Christmas ornament," Carroll said.

"But a sled," Steg said. A Vote-O-Matic: just the right size for some Yankee child on a snowy Christmas morning.

She added:

"One would hold a small tushie."

_ Times staff writer Christopher Goffard and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.