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Election officials fear ballots won't return to state on time

Associated Press

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- Army 1st Lt. Jeff Carlson is desperate to vote in this fall's presidential election. Whether the system can accommodate him, and thousands of other soldiers overseas, is an open question.

"I feel this year's election will have a big effect on my family and my work," Carlson, who recently completed a tour in Iraq and is based in Germany, said in an e-mail exchange.

"I have seen firsthand what has been going on in Iraq, and I feel we need a strong president to lead our troops home safely."

Carlson hasn't voted since he turned 18 because of difficulty in turning in an absentee ballot. This year Carlson, 23, worries that he won't receive his requested ballot and be able to return it in time.

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Election officials, political party leaders and even the Pentagon say they're working to do better than the last presidential election, when nearly 30 percent of military voters who requested ballots didn't get them in time. In addition, hundreds of military ballots were rejected because they lacked postmarks or signatures.

The Department of Defense says about 265,000 military personnel are posted overseas on bases in countries such as Germany and Italy. About 138,000 soldiers are in Iraq, and about 17,000 in Afghanistan, according to U.S. Central Command.

Minnesota law requires ballots be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, and elections officials admit they're concerned that soldiers won't request ballots and return them quickly enough.

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer said soldiers should be requesting ballots now and returning them as soon as possible. Absentee ballots are mailed 30 days before an election; county auditors already are mailing ballots for the Sept. 14 primaries.

Kiffmeyer said her office and secretaries of state from around the country are trying to make sure troops know how the process works, by using public service announcements and e-mailing soldiers directly.

The U.S. military has trained officers to help troops, and provides an online version of the federal ballot application. Officials also have tried to make sure ballots are more recognizable in the mail, and have worked with the postal service for faster handling of military ballots.

Conventional wisdom is that people in uniform are more likely to support Republican candidates. That's not the case for Lt. Col. Scott Anderson, commander of the Army Reserve's 367th Engineer Battalion, based in St. Cloud but currently serving in Afghanistan.

"I still do not know who I will vote for," Anderson said in an e-mail. "I think that makes this one more interesting, is the undecided factor. It seems more of a toss-up than most."

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Every one of the unit's 560 soldiers has registered to vote, said 1st Ld. Parker Hahn, a voting assistant officer whose job is to provide election materials to soldiers.

"Since we are directly involved in what is going on here and Afghanistan, I would say our time invested in our decision is a little more intense than, say, the bag-handler at your local grocery store," Hahn wrote in an e-mail. "I know some of my soldiers who claim to be Republican or Democrat are spending more time researching platforms, histories and plans than just pinning the tail on the donkey or elephant."

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