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In Tight US Campaign, Candidates Look to the Overseas Vote - 2004-09-09


Former President Ronald Reagan said that Americans “cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent.” That sentiment takes on a special meaning in considering the expatriate vote in this election year. Julie Carpenter files this report on how ballots from Americans living abroad may affect U.S. presidential polling in November.

Although there aren’t any designated records kept, the U.S. State Department estimates a little over seven million Americans live outside the U.S. Though it is not known how many of those so-called expatriates vote, both the Republican and Democratic political parties are courting them and taking no chance that their ballots might undermine them at the finish.

Sharon Minetta is the spokesperson for Democrats Abroad International, which has chapters in 73 countries. She says the enormous global interest in the presidential ticket this year accounts for increasing voter registration.

“People are terribly concerned about this election,” she says. “They see it very much as the world’s election. Both Americans living overseas and, as I said, the people from the various countries where they live are all very concerned. And we’ve seen a huge rise in voter registration in Americans living overseas.”

The process for tallying absentee votes has always been subject to criticism because of the lack of a uniform mechanism for submitting ballots. Voters return their ballots, usually by mail - which can take a lot of time - to the county clerk of their home state. But each state has different procedures by which to submit the ballots. Polling expert Kosuke Imai says this inconsistency can create many problems.

“The procedure for the absentee ballots should be closely examined,” he says, “because right now it’s left to the discretion of local officials, and they are often likely to be pressured by party officials. So that’s a problem. But in principle, everyone’s vote should be counted.”

The problem was demonstrated in the controversial Florida vote in the 2000 election. Mr. Imai, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, co-authored a Harvard study that analyzed Florida’s overseas vote in that election. He says the final margin of expatriate voting - with figures provided by the Florida secretary of state - show Mr. Bush won in Florida by 537 votes, effectively giving him the victory. But of all the absentee ballots. Mr. Imai says nearly 700 should have been disqualified. “Some of the illegal votes were counted as a result of the pressure by Republican lawyers and campaign workers,” he says, “because they insisted that, even though those ballots violate state election laws, they should be counted.”

The Republican Party, however, stands by the Florida Secretary of State’s ruling that the ballots were counted properly.

For the military vote, U.S. officials say there are about 350,000 to 400,000 personnel stationed overseas, with about a third of those in Iraq.

The states of Missouri and North Dakota will allow military voters to e-mail ballots to the Defense Department, which will in turn, forward them to local election offices. But some say this process has too many potential security problems to make it reliable. An editorial in The New York Times notes the ballots could be lost in transit or altered. The computer retrieval system is also vulnerable to tampering.

Thirty-two states now allow overseas voters to send their ballots by fax. This is proposed in legislation pending in the western state of California. Its sponsor, Patricia Bates, says it is aimed not only at military personnel, but also civilians working with the military or anyone who has a long-term assignment overseas.

She says her bill will likely be signed in time for the November election. Mrs. Bates concedes the procedure has a drawback. Faxing does not preserve the secrecy of the ballot. “But it is a choice thing: if you do not wish to give up the privilege of the secret ballot, then you would not use the fax procedure you would use the existing procedure,” she says.

Though she is a Republican, Patricia Bates says the point of the bill is to make balloting accessible to voters regardless of their party. “We wanted this to be something that was very non-partisan,” she says, “that the importance of your vote to maintaining freedom and democracy in this country is very vital to insuring that our frame, our form of government is here today and certainly for the future.”

With polls showing the race for president quite close, both camps know that every absentee vote -- whether Republican, Democrat, military or expatriate - will count in November.

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