Fla. man lives among the chads of 2000 election

Saturday, October 25, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's been eight years since the recount of the 2000 Florida election, but Jim Dobyns is still living with chads. One waited for him when he went to clean the top of the microwave. He found another by the coffee table. And when he was petting his cat recently he plucked one of the manila-colored flakes from its fur.

Three years ago, Dobyns bought 1,200 Votomatic III voting machines, ones used by Palm Beach County during that infamous election.

When the outcome of the presidential election hung on Florida's electoral votes, it was Palm Beach's ballots and their hanging, pregnant and dimpled chads that became the subject of scrutiny. Ultimately, Florida junked the machines statewide in favor of new technology.

Dobyns, though, can't get rid of the chads, which have leaked out of the machines and permanently into his life.

"I'll never get them out of the van," Dobyns said. "And I don't want to get them out of the van because I see it and I think: 'That's cool."'

Dobyns, a Republican political consultant, isn't the only one who thinks the machines are cool. He has began selling the collapsable, briefcase-sized Votomatics on eBay or through his website for up to $75, plus shipping.

Recently, he leased 26 as props to the HBO movie "Recount," which was about President Bush's White House-clinching 537-vote victory in Florida over Al Gore. But his list of customers has also grown to include a congressional staffer, an executive with the New York City bar association, a few presidential libraries and a number of high school history teachers.

"I always like to say however you vote it always comes out Bush, and then the heated debate starts from there," said Joe Raschke, a Republican and friend of Dobyns' who lives in Chicago and who was given one of the machines as a wedding gift.

Most of the machines, however, have gone to Democrats, Dobyns says, who are still angry about the 2000 election and entranced by the machines. His wife, Pam, explains it this way: the voting machines became the election's villain; buying a machine is a way to control something Democrats couldn't.

Owners say they like having a piece of history and that the pieces are a conversation starter, no matter what party someone belongs to. Chris Chiari, 34, a Florida business consultant and Democrat, bought two of the machines last summer -- one for an auction and the other to set up in his den. "I can punch any hole I want. I own it," Chiari said.

Stephanie McCaffery, 30, who teaches geography and history in Tennessee, got her machine, along with tube socks, as a Christmas gift last year. Her family has since used it to mock-vote in a primary, though "with my mom, not so secret those ballots," she said.

Though the machine is still at her mother's house in Florida, McCaffery, a Republican, says she'd eventually like to use it in her classroom, where students have asked why the country doesn't just vote online. It's amazing that something so low-tech could pick the United States' leader, she said, and having the machine is like having a "historical souvenir."

Having a piece of history was what Dobyns was thinking, too, when he saw that a local election office was disposing of the Votomatics for $5 each. Dobyns, who lives on Florida's west coast, drove the hour and a half to the election office and filled up his blue Dodge Caravan, twice. But Dobyns really wanted what he calls the "Holy Grail of the 2000 election" -- the machines from Palm Beach County.

In 2005, he got a lead on them. A man who bought them from the county was selling his warehouse full of the machines. The eBay asking price: $12,000. Dobyns went to inspect the warehouse. It was hot and dark -- Votomatics stacked to the ceiling and the floor speckled with chads. He bought everything.

These days, though, Dobyns' stock is getting low. He has about 50 to 60 machines left, which he keeps in a storage facility near his home.

In May, Dobyns realized he'd been making a mistake. Every time he sold a Votomatic, he gave away something for free: the chads left in the back of the machine. How had he missed their value? He opened one machine and scooped out the chads. He and his wife printed up certificates of authenticity and sat down together to assemble Ziploc bags of chads.

At 10 chads per bag, Dobyns thinks he can make about 2,000. He hopes to sell them for $20 each on eBay, though he may lower the price for the holidays.

He says he can't help but see opportunities in this election.

Barack Obama's campaign should be selling his ties after he has worn them, he says. They'd make even more cash if they cut them up and sold them in squares. And Sarah Palin? Dobyns thinks a lottery for the glasses she wore during the vice presidential debate could generate $250,000. Oh, and "They should be selling her hair," he said. "The hair you could actually sell one strand at a time."

Dobyns doesn't know what will happen this year, what might be the "hanging chad of 2008 in terms of merchandising and fundraising?"

"So that's what I'll be sitting there thinking about election night," he said. "Is how to make a buck off of this stuff."

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