By Producer
NBC News
updated 9/9/2004 7:46:33 AM ET 2004-09-09T11:46:33

With the American death toll in Iraq topping 1,000, the war remains at the center of the national debate over who should be the next president of the United States.

As the battle in Iraq grinds on, the soldiers who are enlisted to fight the war are pushing to make sure that their voices are heard when Americans go to the polls.

This year, nearly half a million troops stationed overseas will be eligible to cast their absentee ballots for the presidential election. Overall, officials estimate there are 6 million potential American voters abroad.

While service members were dismayed by the fact that many votes from overseas were not counted in the last election, there is a marked increase in interest in 2004, according to U.S. officials in Germany, home to thousands of servicemen and women and their families.

The stakes are high again ahead of Nov. 2 as President Bush and Sen. John Kerry wage a fierce battle to win undecided votes in key swing states.

Registration at Ramstein
Major Bill Kennedy, for one, is busier than ever answering phones and meeting with visitors in his small office at the headquarters of the 435th Air Base Wing in Ramstein, Germany.

Kennedy, 44, is one of four so called Installation Voting Assistance Officers at Ramstein Air Base, a military installation which hosts the largest American military community in Europe.

The Air Force officer oversees more than 12,000 eligible voters, nearly half of the entire Ramstein community. In the past months, he has visited over 100 different units at the base, talking to soldiers and airmen, advising military personnel and their dependents on how to properly vote overseas.

"Since the beginning of August we have been extremely busy, as we are going into the decisive phase of our mission. Up to now, we have reached nearly 95 percent of all Department of Defense civilians and military members in our community," Kennedy said.

"In fact, the work as a voting assistance officer has now taken precedence over my regular job," said Kennedy. In addition to his special assignment this year, Kennedy works as a liaison officer for Air Force personnel outside the military community.

Awareness program
During the month of August, Kennedy and his colleagues increased the number of posters on base that remind Americans to vote. Signs that read "It is your future. VOTE!" are now posted at offices, the local shopping center, in post offices and at the local dining facility.

"We tell people that it impacts their future pay, it impacts all of their military incentives. Their right to vote needs to be exercised because it gives them benefits in the long-run," Kennedy said.

For Kennedy it is an important and fruitful education process.
 
"If the people are not educated properly they tend to have an apathy, which was somewhat reflected in the last election," Kennedy said.

Military voting problems created an uproar in the 2000 election when some ballots were rejected in Florida, the state that gave President Bush his razor-thin margin of victory over Democratic candidate Al Gore.

Many of the military ballots were not counted because signatures were not legible or they did not have an appropriate date stamp, which is required by law. And, some of the ballots did not arrive in time at all.

New focus
In September of 2001, the Government Accountability Office, GAO, issued its so called "GAO-01-1026" advisory on how to improve the process after its telephone survey found that almost two thirds of the absentee ballots were rejected.

As a result, the Department of Defense stepped up its efforts to avoid voting errors by absentee voters.

Modern technology is a key weapon. Online versions of the federal ballot application are available, television and newspaper ads call upon voters to register, and even computer screen pop-ups remind military site users to vote.

"I call it the super-saturation phase," Kennedy explained, "because people on base are reminded of the election almost everywhere." And, it works, he said, "we have seen a phenomenal increase in voter registration.”

According to Charles Abell, principal deputy to the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the military can have a decisive inpact on the election outcome.

"Nearly 70 percent of the service members cast ballots during the last election, compared with 51 percent of the general public and 37 percent of U.S. civilians abroad," Abell told the Associated Press.

"There have been more political discussions at our office and I have recently become more aware of the voting procedures," said 22-year-old Airmen First Class Miriam Patterson, who works at the 435th Mission Support Squadron in Ramstein.

Patterson did not vote in the 2000 election, but registered this time.

Sense vote will 'count' this time
While the military is prohibited by law from demanding that individuals register to vote and party representatives are not permitted to campaign on military installations, officials have taken a more serious approach this year to avert a repeat of the balloting problems from 2000.

America’s wars"I did not vote last time because I had the feeling that my vote did not count," said Airman First Class Christy Aguigui, 25, who works at the human resource department for the 435th Mission Support Squadron. "But, I will this time," she added.

The military asks its active duty members not to openly display or voice their political opinion while in uniform. Yet, many soldiers and airmen still exercise their right to freedom of speech these days.

"Even though active duty members tend to be nervous about open political involvement, I have seen people wearing VOTE KERRY T-shirts on base," Ronald Schlundt, the chairman of “Democrats Abroad,” who lives near Ramstein Air Base.

Yet surveys show that service members generally lean toward the Republican Party.

Whichever candidate is chosen by military members, their vote could again play a huge role in this year's election, especially in the so-called battleground states, including Florida, which thousands of overseas military members call home.

Andy Eckardt is an NBC News producer based in Mainz, Germany.  

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