Baghdad, Iraq — U.S. service members based in Iraq and across the globe can't be confident that their votes will be counted in this year's presidential election, analysts and military advocates said this week.
Those warnings came despite a stepped-up Pentagon campaign -- developed in response to the 2000 election, when as many as 30 percent of service members stationed overseas were unable to vote -- to encourage troops to register and vote early.
Observers praised the military's efforts but said a cumbersome voting process, a confusing patchwork of state laws and likely ballot challenges almost certainly would disenfranchise some military voters.
"They've made three steps forward in terms of their effort and attention to the problem but two steps backward as a practical matter," said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who closely follows military voting.
Anecdotal accounts from soldiers stationed in Iraq confirmed that at least some troops here who applied to their local elections boards for absentee ballots months ago still haven't received them.
"I sent my application in June and I never got anything back," said 1st Cavalry Sgt. Jim Villareal from Orange County, Calif.
But unlike past elections in which Villareal and others like him probably would've been disenfranchised, the military has distributed tens of thousands of federal write-in ballots this year. The replacement ballots allow soldiers who haven't received local ballots to vote on candidates for federal office, though they don't permit voting on state and local issues.
"It's a pretty poor substitute for a regular ballot, but it beats nothing," said Sam Wright, who heads the Military Voting Rights Project.
More than the military, states and local jurisdictions are to blame for not getting their ballots to overseas soldiers. Late primary elections and legal challenges -- many of them involving Ralph Nader's bid to get on ballots -- have delayed printing and mailing absentee ballots in many jurisdictions.
There've been isolated reports of shortages of the federal replacement ballots, but Wright said they appeared to be reaching most soldiers who needed them.
"We have seen some improvement. Just how much is impossible to say. At this point everyone has their fingers crossed," said Derek Stewart, who in 2001 wrote a highly critical assessment of the military's overseas voting program for the Government Accountability Office.
Given the likelihood of a close presidential election, a few thousand more votes from service members stationed overseas could swing the results in battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Just 537 votes divided President Bush and Al Gore in Florida in 2000, a spread easily covered by military ballots.