By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 9/15/2004 11:05:43 AM ET 2004-09-15T15:05:43

The traditional Republican lock on the military vote, coveted but rarely captured by Democrats, shows signs of softening in the run up to this year’s presidential race, experts say.  And in hotly contested states with large military populations, where turnout is expected to be high, absentee ballots could be the deciding factor.

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Steeped in patriotism, the military vote in this election cycle has been complicated by events in Iraq and grumblings of military miscalculations.  Add to those grumblings the economic, emotional and physical hardships endured by families and friends of the 160,000-plus National Guard and reservists called up from their civilian lives and deployed overseas to help fight the global war on terrorism and the once solid GOP voting bloc of the military could be in play, some experts say.

Unlike the general public, the military generally comes out to vote in higher percentages.  About 70 percent of the 1.4 million active duty military members voted in 2000 compared with about 51 percent of the general public, according to federal election records.

But determining the political leanings of the nation’s military has traditionally been difficult. The military is prickly about giving pollsters and academics unfettered access to its troops.

A poll conducted late last year by the Military Times found that 57 percent of those surveyed consider themselves Republican, while 13 percent identified with the Democrats.  Among the officer corps the numbers were different.  Nearly 66 percent of officers considered themselves Republican compared with 9 percent Democratic. Nearly 30 percent of those surveyed by the Military Times declined to answer the questions or said they were independent. 

The newspaper survey also showed the weight of the war on the military’s opinion of President Bush.

"(The military's) approval of Bush is noticeably stronger than their approval of his handling of the war in Iraq," the Times' managing editor, Robert Hodierne, told the Inter Press Service.  The Times’ poll showed 56 percent of those responding supported the president’s handling the war in Iraq; polls among the general population show about 50 percent support Bush’s handling of Iraq.

Military vote ‘on probation’
Military personnel have put the president “on probation” says Peter Feaver, director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University, and an expert in civilian-military relations.

“[Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry, doubts about Iraq and frustrations with [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and these kinds of issues have softened military support for the President but I don’t think they have caused it to collapse,” says Feaver, noting that the public will get a much better idea of how the military thinks in October when a long awaited Annenberg Public Policy Center study is released.

Bush’s support among National Guard and reservists in 2000 was incredibly high, Feaver says, drawing on his own survey data, “even more conservative, and more Republican than the regular Army, but just by a slight margin.”

Although Bush’s support among the National Guard and reserve “has probably taken the biggest hit of any service members” because of the issues surrounding the Iraqi deployment, Feaver said, such as mobilization difficulties, lack of equipment and training compared to the regular Army.  “I would be very surprised, however, if Kerry won that group,” Feaver said.  “What we’re talking about here is eating into an advantage but not eliminating that advantage.”

Such disaffection isn’t lost on the Bush campaign.  During the last week of August the president made a concerted effort to meet with families of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Now, you occasionally get people who say ‘I’m mad,’” said Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist in August.  “But most of the time they want reassurance from the president of the United States that their loved ones will not have died in vain,” while at the same time urging the president to “stay the course, finish the mission, don’t let my son or daughter be dishonored by coming up short.”

And while recent polls show Bush beginning to stretch out his lead on Kerry, they also show a continued weariness with the war in Iraq.  A poll released in the last week of August by Quinnipiac University in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania indicated that veterans and military families there overwhelmingly oppose the war: 54 percent to 31 percent.

Such polls continue to give Republican strategists fits because it tends to erode the conventional wisdom that the military vote is a Republican given.

“The military—either active duty or veterans—is going to take a much harder look at this election then they have in elections before, said Dian Mazur, a University of Florida law professor and former Air Force officer.  “The choice is no longer a reflexive choice,” Mazur said.  “It’s based on a real war, and the real use of military in a way that was somewhat abstract prior to 9/11.”

Another factor that may play into how those deployed overseas vote are the opinions of the officer corps.  Surveys show that Republican officers outnumber their enlisted counterparts by about 9-to-1. 
Only in relative recent military history did officers begin to even voice their political opinion.  Gen. George C. Marshall, of the “Marshall Plan,” had a policy of non-partisanship, says Richard Kohn, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina and a scholar of the military.  “I think the Iraq war may have caused many officers who have become quite partisan thinking Republicans in their private political capacity to wonder about whether they should be invested very much in the politics of the country,” Kohn said.

Kohn believes that the internal questions officers raise won’t deter them from voting but it’s possible that it could erode or soften their overall support for Bush and even throw some votes toward Kerry.

20,000 leagues away from the poll
This year, with nearly 500,000 troops posted overseas—a larger voting bloc than the combined registered voters of Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Delaware and the District of Columbia—absentee balloting also is getting the spotlight. 

Bush vs. Kerry issue-by-issueThat spotlight is due in no small part to the voting debacle that took place in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.  Analysts believe that President Bush’s razor thin 537 vote margin of victory in Florida, which gave him the exact number of Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency, can be attributed to absentee military votes.  At the time Democrats challenged thousands of those absentee ballots and succeeded in getting more than 1,000 disqualified for one reason or another.

Sam Wright, a reserve officer, lawyer and director of military voting for the National Defense Committee, a non-partisan organization in Washington, D.C., says that even after decades of debate absentee voting procedures for America’s military personnel are woefully inadequate.  “The problem for troops, in place like Afghanistan or Iraq, is that they are a moving target,” Wright said.  “How are mailed ballots going to find them? How are they going to be filled out and mailed back if they are on the go all the time?” he said.

Such was not the case during the Cold War when hundreds of thousands of troops stationed outside the U.S. were essentially in static locations, primarily stationed in Germany. But in a global war on terrorism, these people are moving around,” Wright said.

A Pentagon study in 2000 estimated 29 percent of military personnel wanting to vote by absentee ballot couldn’t for a variety of reasons.  Nearly 75 percent of those surveyed by the Pentagon said they encountered some kind of problem when voting overseas.  And a study the Government Accountability Office detailed a woefully inefficient and inadequate military mail system.   This year the Pentagon, working with the postal system, has developed a new procedure for handling and mailing absentee ballots that it hopes will speed the process.

Wright surveyed election officials in 2002 regarding the number of people that requested absentee ballots compared with the number of those ballots that actually were counted in that year’s general election. 

In Missouri, a so-called battleground state in this year’s presidential election, only 58.7 percent of ballots sent out actually came back and were counted.  In Florida only 14 out of the state’s 67 counties responded to Wright’s questionnaire; however, in just those 14 counties Wright said the data shows that “the number of disenfranchised military absentee voters was 2,115,” meaning that 2,115 military members that requested absentee ballots ended up not having those votes counted for some reason.

“Any system that depends on physically finding the person to deliver a piece of paper is likely to fail 30-40 percent of the time,” Wright said.  “We need electronic voting and I understand the concerns.  But in the military we send and receive classified information every day by secure electronic communication networks.”

Earlier this year the military scrapped a $22 million experimental plan that would have allowed wide-scale electronic voting from overseas locations.  The plan was shelved on security concerns. 

This year two states, Missouri and North Dakota, will allow ballots to be filed via the Internet.  The plan is controversial in that those voting will have to sign a waiver acknowledging that their votes won’t be confidential.  The ballots are e-mailed to the Pentagon, which then prints them out and faxes them to yet another company which then forwards them on to the local election officials.  Critics have warned that such a system is rife for corruption and could subject enlisted voters to inappropriate influence by military superiors that will have access to votes cast in the open. 

The first week of September the military made a special push to educate those overseas about absentee balloting procedures.  Television and radio spots and banners in commissaries were all part of a huge public awareness campaign to get out the military vote, according to Charles Abell, deputy undersecretary of Defense. 

Speaking to reporters about the voting push, Abell brushed aside insinuations that the push was made for partisan reasons. 

“Nothing that we have is at all related to a political campaign one way or the other,” Abell said.  By mid-July more than 340,000 absentee ballots had been requested by military members stationed overseas, according to Pentagon figures.  Four years ago the total number of ballot requests hit 250,000.

And there is a kind of “collateral vote” that follows the military:  family and friends. 

“My nephew (Army) died in Baghdad in February. He was 19. He was not old enough to vote when this administration was given (some would say took) control of what, for him, would become life and death decisions about the use of our U.S. military,” writes a woman identified only as “kiaaunt” (Killed-in-Action Aunt) in a forum on OperationTruth.org.  “I hope all the troops will exercise their rights and demand fair and just balloting procedures. Heck, you're supposed to be fighting to protect Iraqi rights. Yours are not any less important. William never had a say and never will, but you do and it's vital that the nation hears your voices and counts your votes!”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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