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ARLINGTON, Va. — Servicemembers overseas who want to vote in the 2004 elections should contact their home districts for absentee ballots by Sept. 6 and make sure they mail the completed ballot no later than Oct. 11, Defense Department officials said Tuesday.

The Pentagon plans to launch a major voting information campaign during the first week in September that officials hope will result in “a flurry of ballot requests flowing into the United States,” according to Charles Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Speaking to reporters along with Paul Vogel, the U.S. Postal Service’s vice president for network operations, Abell said that although Election Day isn’t until Tuesday, Nov. 2, overseas servicemembers should cast their absentee ballots no later than Oct. 11.

“From even the remotest parts of Afghanistan, we believe if [deployed troops] cast their votes” by Oct. 11, the ballots will make it back to the United States in plenty of time to be counted, Abell said.

The Postal Service and the Pentagon are working together on what Vogel termed “low-tech” initiatives to help expedite the absentee ballot mailing process for 2004.

The process will begin with local clerks hastening absentee ballots to their overseas recipients via overnight Express Mail, the officials said.

Once the ballots get to one of three military postal gateways in San Francisco, Miami and New York, the documents will be placed in specially marked, “high-visibility” containers and be given priority handling, both by the U.S. Postal Service and the Pentagon’s own Military Postal System, Abell and Vogel said.

The return trip of the absentee ballots back to their local precincts and county officials will be made in the same expedited, highly visible manner, the officials said.

The U.S. government is hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2000 presidential election, in which thousands of angry military voters complained that their absentee ballots did not reach the United States in time to be counted in an especially tight presidential race.

The issue came to a head in Florida, where some 1,420 overseas ballots — most of them from U.S. servicemembers — were thrown out because of late or missing postmarks.

One lesson learned from the 2000 experience, Abell said, is that all overseas ballots will be postmarked this time around, even though military’s “free mail” does not require such a mark in order for the mail to be delivered.

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