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Voting machine company folds; towns, villages must pay price

Pierce County municipalities which used federal funds to buy mandated voting machines two years ago will have to shell out their own money for replacements this year.

The new machines -- which have a touch screen, a control pad and a headset -- will cost $4,400 apiece. Although the law requires them to have only one for each polling place, some municipalities are buying more and some are buying optical scanners to read paper ballots.

Pierce County Clerk Jamie Feuerhelm, who arranged the original purchase, said that first company, Voting Technology International, has gone out of business, leaving the municipalities with machines they can't use. But the cities, towns and villages must still comply with a federal requirement each polling place have at least one voting system for use by people with disabilities, including the blind or visually impaired.

Pierce County has 28 polling places. Feuerhelm negotiated with VTI to buy voting machines for each of 24 polling places. (The City of River Falls, which has four polling places in Pierce County, chose to go with the Command Central machines purchased for St. Croix County municipalities.)

While each polling place was required to have one machine, Feuerhelm said in 2006 he arranged to buy two machines with the $6,000 grant money each polling place got.

"That was part of the package that I negotiated," he said.

"Anytime you introduce something new, people complain, and we did get complaints," Feuerhelm admitted.

But, he said, the machines worked very well and the next five elections went well.

Even now, he said, it's not that the machines don't work, it's that the company has gone out of business and the county no longer has the ability to make the new ballot CDs needed for each election.

Feuerhelm said the software to make the CDs was on a VTI-owned server the county accessed over the internet.

He was able to get the CDs for last February's election, but not for the April election, when he heard the company had apparently gone out of business.

Repeated calls to the VTI's CEO went unanswered, said Feuerhelm.

"He absolutely would not take a phone call at all."

The bank that seized VTI's assets offered to sell the company's server to Pierce County for $25,000.

"It was worth in my opinion $5,000," said Feuerhelm. "And even if we got it, we had no guarantee it would work."

Instead, he has been working with another company, Command Central, to buy new HAVA-certified units for $4,400 apiece.

Feuerhelm said he had hoped to get financial help for the municipalities, but wasn't successful.

"I talked to the county, the state and the feds," he said. "Nobody's got any money."

Ellsworth Clerk/Treasurer Peggy Nelson said the village will buy one of the new machines and go back to the optical scanner machines it used before.

She said Ellsworth purchased nine of the VTI machines, but the county held back some of that purchase money and will now refund it to the village.

The Town of River Falls will buy one of the Command Central machines and an optical scanner, said Clerk Ruth Stern.

"We're OK on it," she said of the cost. The town had also put up some of its own money to buy VTI machines. It will get a refund from the county on that, plans to get some cash for old machines and had a couple of certificates of deposit come due, said Stern.