- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

President Bush’s re-election or defeat next month could hang on an enlarged absentee military vote, particularly from battleground states.

“The outcome of the presidential elections could turn on the overseas vote, both military and civilian,” said Timothy B. Mills, a Washington lawyer now in Baghdad to organize a nonpartisan voter-aid effort for U.S. citizens in the region.

Republicans generally benefit from overseas military ballots by more than a 2-to-1 margin. The Defense Department reports that 484,384 Americans in the military — more than twice as many as in 2000 — are deployed overseas.

“The potential overseas military vote for Ohio alone is 14,559. Add votes by overseas civilian contractor employees and it could be enough to make the difference in a close finish,” Mr. Mills said. “Florida, which now has about 35,000 military overseas, was decided by 537 votes in 2000.”

In Florida, about 2,500 overseas ballots — most believed to be military — were counted on Nov. 17, 2000, and about 1,500 were rejected. From those counted, Mr. Bush picked up a net gain of 739 and ended up carrying the state by 537 votes.

Several states and the Pentagon have implemented reforms to allow a larger percentage of military personnel and civilian contract workers to complete and return ballots in time to be counted.

Some problems of the 2000 elections remain, “but they aren’t as bad as they were,” said Samuel F. Wright, director of the Virginia-based Military Voting Rights Project.

“The Florida problem has been pretty much solved,” Mr. Wright said, and some battleground states are in better shape to count military overseas votes.

Pennsylvania mailed its ballots to overseas military personnel 45 days before the election. In Missouri, an electronic balloting system for overseas service members is operating, Mr. Wright said. However, problems still loom in some pivotal states, including Ohio and New Mexico.

Democrats Abroad isn’t happy with the progress.

“It’s very serious and troubling,” said Sharon Manitta, the organization’s spokeswoman in London. “So many states are taking too long to send out absentee ballots, and it’s a problem for U.S. military and civilians who live outside the country.”

She said Miami-Dade County in Florida won’t send out absentee ballots until Monday, “which doesn’t give enough time for a turnaround in some countries where Americans live or are stationed.”

In March, Pentagon officials shelved their $22 million Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE), which was supposed to let troops abroad vote on the Internet. They said SERVE had security problems, which they hoped to fix in time for future elections.

About 140,000 U.S. troops and 100,000 U.S. civilian contractors are in Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan, but the number of registered voters there is unknown.

An estimated 85 percent of the U.S. civilian contractor community and 60 percent of U.S. military members in Iraq support Mr. Bush. A Sept. 21-28 e-mail survey of subscribers by the Military Times newspapers showed Mr. Bush leading his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, by a 4-to-1 margin.

The numbers reflect voting patterns based on race and ethnicity.

“Minorities, who tend to vote Democrat, make up a very small part of the U.S. contractor community in Iraq,” said an American contractor who asked not to be identified.

Pentagon figures from July show the military made up of 68.1 percent whites. The remainder were blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

Mr. Bush’s position as commander in chief and historic military support of Republican ideals also are expected to help the president.

Joan Hills, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad, said the Defense Department has done a good job this year in expediting the overseas balloting process.

In 2000, her organization, which advertises in Stars & Stripes, fielded more than 300 telephone calls and e-mails from overseas military personnel complaining they hadn’t received their ballots or asking how to apply for absentee ballots.

“This year, we received only one e-mail — from someone in the 82nd Airborne — who hadn’t gotten his absentee ballot. I got an e-mail from the same person four days later saying everything is in order.”

She said her organization and its Democratic counterpart are “making a big bipartisan registration effort in Iraq” among U.S. military personnel.

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