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Military Concerned About Their Votes

November 20, 2000

WUERZBURG, Germany (AP) _ Serving their country from the most remote corners of the world, members of the U.S. military diligently cast their absentee ballots and mailed them _ even sending in votes from aboard an aircraft carrier.

Now, they are distressed that their votes may not be counted after hundreds of overseas ballots were disqualified in Florida, often for a lack of an overseas postmark.

``We’re a little burned out and we just want to know who our next commander in chief is going to be,″ said Master Sgt. Larry Lane at the headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division in Wuerzburg.

``It really disappoints a lot of soldiers,″ said Lane, who is registered in St. Augustine, Fla., and has voted in every election _ federal, state and local _ for 10 years.

The disqualification of 1,527 overseas ballots by county canvassers in Florida, many for lack of a postmark, has prompted complaints from Rebublicans, who accused Democrats of an organized effort to get military ballots thrown out.

Officials at U.S. military facilities worldwide said letters sent home would normally be postmarked as soon as officials received them.

Felix Mendiola, director of postal operations for U.S. Army in Europe in Heidelberg, said he doesn’t believe the absentee ballots disqualified in the Florida race came from the military.

Capt. William E. Thompson, spokesman for the U.S. Army’s Camp Monteith in Kosovo, said any mail without postmarks would mean soldiers working in the mailroom simply ``missed a few.″

``All the mail that goes out is supposed to be postmarked,″ he said. ``But it’s probably not unheard of for one or two to get missed.″

There have been cases, however, of a small number of absentee ballots being returned over apparent confusion when the envelope has the voter’s address on the back, Mendiola said.

Of the 27 Army post offices in Europe, seven have so far reported that a total of 30 letters from different states have been returned. The postal officials immediately sent the votes back again, in some cases by express mail, and Mendiola said the original postmark should have vouched for their validity.

``This could possibly have happened for years and years, but because of the closeness in the voting, now it’s being noticed,″ he said.

There are no total figures on how many in the military actually cast votes in Florida. In the Air Force, officials at Aviano air base in Italy said there were 5,203 military personnel registered as absentee voters in Florida at all air bases in Europe.

Over the weekend, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot lashed out at supporters of Democratic candidate Al Gore, saying ``the vice president’s lawyers have gone to war, in my judgment, against the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces.″

He said George W. Bush’s gains from overseas ballots should have been larger than reported, and that the campaign was pondering legal challenges. Bush got 1,380 votes to Gore’s 750 from the overseas absentees.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman on Sunday urged vote counters to ``give the benefit of the doubt″ to ballots coming in from military personnel.

``I think it’s a real shame,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Randy King of Pensacola, Fla., who is based at Atsugi naval station in Japan. ``If it comes down to ballots being thrown out, I’m a little disappointed in the Navy postal system if in fact my ballot was somehow delayed.″

``We had to send our absentee ballots in a long time ago, way before the election. What was the problem?″ asked Navy Seaman Antonio Coleman of Los Angeles, referring to the ballot he sent from the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, now in port near Tokyo.

Maj. Stacee Bako at the Lakenheath U.S. air base in England said there had been ``tremendous turnout″ in this year’s election at the base, with more than 3,000 of the total 5,000 registering to vote.

``We would like a little closure,″ said the Vermont resident. ``We’ve all voted, we’ve done our part _ now we just want some type of result.″