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Citizen soldiers

"Citizen soldiers" Continued...

Issue: "2004 Election: Clinch time," Oct. 30, 2004

Spc. Bass's views were echoed in the Army Times Publishing Company survey. Nearly two out of three service members said Mr. Kerry's post-Vietnam anti-war activities made them less likely to vote for the senator. Meanwhile, only about one in 10 said Mr. Kerry's combat service made them more likely to mark their ballots his way.

Still, Mr. Kerry does have military supporters in Iraq. A September article in the Christian Science Monitor called anti-Bush troops a "strident minority" whose passion is fueled at least in part by the Michael Moore film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Soldiers who spoke with the Monitor seemed disillusioned by a perceived shift in the Bush administration's justification for attacking Iraq.

"There's no clear definition of why we came here," Army Spec. Nathan Swink, of Quincy, Ill., said. "First they said they have WMD . . . then it was to get Saddam Hussein out of office, and then to rebuild Iraq. I want to fight for my nation and for my family . . . not to protect Iraqi civilians or deal with Sadr's militia . . . Kerry protested the war in Vietnam. He is the one to end this stuff, to lead our exit of Iraq."

Pollsters like never before are watching not only the content but also the conduct of overseas military balloting, a bloc widely credited with tipping Florida's 27 electoral votes-and the presidency-into George Bush's column in 2000. On Nov. 17 of that year, Sunshine State election officials counted 2,500 mostly military overseas ballots, rejecting 1,500 on technical grounds that included missing postmarks. Of the remaining ballots, Mr. Bush tallied a net gain of 739 votes and wound up winning Florida by only 537.

The Department of Defense (DOD) is pushing to end criticism of its military absentee voting apparatus. Still smarting from the missing-postmark fiasco of 2000 that nullified thousands of overseas military votes in Florida and elsewhere, DOD this year sent U.S. postmarking machines to exotic outposts ranging from Djibouti to the Syrian border, along with detailed instructions to armed-forces postal workers about how and when to stamp ballots.

In July and September, the agency sponsored overseas voter registration drives. Following that, planes, choppers, and humvees trundled ballots to more than 225,000 U.S. Central Command troops and DOD personnel serving in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. This month the Pentagon is underwriting its own get-out-the-vote drive, encouraging overseas personnel to actually mark their ballots and drop them in the mail.

Whether those ballots will be counted is an open question. Some states did not mail absentee ballots overseas until mid-October. In Arkansas, for example, the Democrats' court challenges to Ralph Nader's candidacy delayed the printing and mailing of absentee ballots. Arkansas voter registrars finally mailed out ballots on Oct. 8, but some counties, caught without finished printed ballots, had to send out Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots instead.

In Florida's Miami-Dade County-focal point during the 2000 recount-absentee ballots did not go out to military personnel until Oct. 11. With ballots having to travel thousands of miles and back again in a lengthy and complex transportation relay, observers worry that some overseas service members will once again be locked out of the election.

In swing states, even a few hundred disenfranchised military voters could mean the difference in the election. In hotly contested Ohio, for example, 1,100 Guard and reserve troops will vote from overseas. In Pennsylvania, where polls show the candidates in a statistical dead heat, 15,000 Guard and reserve troops will send in absentee ballots from foreign lands.

With several battleground states decided in 2000 by a few hundred to a few thousand votes-including New Mexico, Iowa, Florida, Oregon, and Wisconsin-the rank-and-file soldier standing a lonely watch over miles of Middle Eastern sand has morphed into a significant swing voter. And the debate over who is best to lead the war in Iraq could be decided by those who are fighting it.

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