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ARLINGTON, Va. — Pentagon leaders have taken steps to correct a voting oversight that four years ago kept hundreds of ballots from being counted in the nation’s highly contested presidential election.

In the 2000 election, Florida election officials threw out hundreds of overseas absentee ballots because they lacked postmarks, a problem highlighted because of the close count in votes cast for Al Gore and George Bush at the polls, said Charles Abell, principal deputy undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness.

While federal policy did not require ballots have postal cancellation marks, in order to sidestep another debacle the Pentagon has equipped voting assistance officers worldwide, including those deployed on ships, with cancellation devices that will postmark and date election ballots, he said.

And many states have made it easier for voters to register and cast their ballots in changes such as allowing faxed-in requests and providing forms that can be downloaded from the Internet, Abell said.

With elections three months away, it’s boiling down to crunch time for military and overseas voters who want to cast absentee ballots.

The Defense Department is responsible for assisting more than 6 million potential voters get necessary absentee information and voting materials, including 1.4 million uniformed voters, 1.3 million dependents of voting age, 100,000 federal civilian employees overseas, and even 3.7 million civilians living overseas not affiliated with the government. A 1998 executive order makes DOD responsible for assisting ex-patriates or U.S. citizens living and working overseas, even if they have no ties to the federal government, Abell said.

Of the 1.4 million uniformed voters, 492,000 are serving or stationed outside of the United States, including the 130,000 active, Reserve and Guard troops deployed to Iraq, and those in Kuwait, Afghanistan and on ships.

Since each state has varying deadlines for registration and submitting ballots, the Pentagon provides a general timeline that voters should follow to ensure their vote gets counted, Abell said.

Voters should register and request ballots no later than the week of Sept. 3-11, and should submit actual ballots the week of Oct. 11-15, he said.

Those guidelines “should” ensure that votes are registered, even if sent “from the remotest part of the world to the remotest part of the United States,” Abell said.

To expedite the mailing process, the Pentagon teamed with the U.S. Postal Service to use specially marked envelopes to ship election materials overnight, and postal clerks give those envelopes priority.

The Pentagon’s Federal Voting Assistance Program maintains a Web site that is a “one-stop information center” to lets voters download and print registration forms and get detailed information on the varying state requirements, he said. The site is www.fvap.gov. Toll-free phone access for questions has been boosted from 58 countries to 66.

To make registering and voting easier, the Pentagon worked with a number of states, and now 32 states accept faxed ballot request forms, up from 23, he said. And 23 states let voters fax in their ballots instead of mailing them, up from 17, Abell said. Detailed lists are posted on the FVAP Web site.


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