ARLINGTON, Va. — The votes continue to pour in from overseas.

As of Thursday, about 55.7 percent of the servicemembers, Department of Defense employees and dependents stationed in Europe who are eligible to vote had done just that, up from about 45 percent reported last week.

About 34,317 ballots have been mailed back to the United States from post offices throughout U.S. Army Europe, up from 27,423 last week.

There also were 39,350 ballots sent from the U.S. Air Force Europe and 9,871 from Navy Region Europe for a total of 83,538 votes sent back to the United States.

The eligible pool of military and dependent voters in Europe is approximately 150,000 people.

The U.S. Postal Service and Department of Defense officials said in June that overseas servicemembers should cast their absentee ballots no later than Oct. 11.

As of Tuesday, about 50,000 servicemembers and civilians deployed to the Central Command region have mailed in absentee ballots, out of the approximately 200,000 soldiers and civilians who are there and presumably eligible to vote.

Lt. Col. Korya James, the Kuwait-based Coalition Land Forces Component Command’s voting assistance officer, compiled the numbers.

In CENTCOM’s theater of operations, which includes Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Qatar and the Horn of Africa, 60,165 absentee ballots were requested, and 48,935 have been returned as of Thursday, James said.

James said 900 voting assistance officers — down to the squad level — held voter-registration drives in chow halls and elsewhere.

“We had a big push, a big initiative to get soldiers to go ahead and vote,” James said. “I would think we would exceed the year 2000 [percentages].”

James said that number of ballots being cast is climbing faster as Election Day approaches and he expects the crush to continue even after next Tuesday because many states will accept absentee ballots even after that, as long as they are postmarked before Nov. 2.

Any such crush aside, the current 25 percent voting rate would be far below the typical rate for overseas military voters during a presidential election. In 2000, the voting rate was nearly three times that.

It also must be noted that the 2000 rates do not include war zones.

In 2000, after the Federal Voting Assistance Program spent $35 million in a “Get Out the Vote” campaign, participation in the presidential elections among uniformed citizens stationed overseas reached 69 percent, according to the 16th annual Federal Voting Assistance Program report issued by the Pentagon in December 2001.

The 2000 military overseas voting rate represented a 5 percentage point increase in uniformed overseas participation over the 1996 election, the report said.

Among federal civilian employees overseas in 2000, meanwhile, voting participation was 65 percent.

The general U.S. public voting rate was 51 percent in 2000.

Servicemembers and federal workers trying to get ballots to the United States from overseas face challenges that make it difficult to send in their ballots on time.

The biggest obstacle for would-be absentee voters, James said, is that stateside election offices that don’t meet deadlines for mailing out absentee ballots.

Deployed members have an additional problem in that mail from the United States often takes 12 to 14 days to reach servicemembers in the Middle East.

To help speed the ballots home, military post offices have separated absentee ballots and given them the highest priority handling.

And since Oct. 24, James said, the U.S. Postal Service has been treating them as express mail.

However, a caveat to any overseas voting statistics that are counted before State Election Commissions have the opportunity to fully tally results is that 23 states allow voters to return ballots by fax, under its own rules.

This policy makes it difficult to determine how many eligible overseas voters are actually voting.

So, for example, the USAFE ballot total did not account for faxed ballots or ballots that have been mailed via international postal systems, according to Capt. Krista Carlos, a USAFE spokeswoman.

“There is no way to track those numbers,” Carlos wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes on Thursday.

More precise statistics concerning overseas participation in the voting process for the 2004 election will be compiled by the Defense Department once the election is over, in what will be the 17th Federal Voting Assistance Report.

According to the “Help America Vote” Act, the 50 states have 90 days after the Nov. 2 elections to report their voting statistics to the Federal Election Commission, Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Friday.

From there, the statistics will be given to the Pentagon, which will use them to produce a 17th FVAP report.

That document will likely not be issued for at least a year after the elections are held, Krenke said.

Stripes reporters Steve Liewer, Scott Schonauer, Jessica Inigo and Marni McEntee contributed to this report.

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