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Military mail woes may slow absentee ballots | (KRT) The military can pinpoint a target the size of coffee cup from thousands of miles away. It can whisk a special forces team to a beachhead within hours.

What it can't do, despite decades of trying, is deliver the mail on time to troops in a combat zone. It usually takes at least a month, maybe even three or four, according to the General Accounting Office.

"Next to food and bullets, what we hear is they want is mail from home, and that's extremely important for morale," said Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican.

To make matters worse this year, the military's absentee voting system, which depends on the timely delivery of mail, is in equally bad shape, according to the Pentagon's inspector general.

Both issues could add up to problems in the November election, especially with a presidential contest that could be decided by a razor-thin margin. Bond said he is worried that many of the ballots from troops overseas won't get counted.

"The military just doesn't have its act together," he said.

Bond has been peppering Pentagon officials, from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on down, with letters urging them to modernize the mail system to avoid a repeat of the 2000 election, when absentee military ballots in Florida became pivotal to President Bush's victory over Al Gore.

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Sam Wright, director of the nonprofit Military Voting Rights Project, said there often is "not sufficient time for ballots to go from election officials to the voter and back, especially if the voter is in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan or a ship at sea, or worse, a submarine under the sea."

Last month, a federal court ordered Pennsylvania to extend until May 17 its deadline for overseas voters to cast ballots in the state's April 27 primary. The Justice Department asked for the extension because the state did not send out absentee ballots soon enough for voters to return them by the primary.

Twenty-nine states require absentee ballots be returned by mail. Others allow faxes.

Wright said that the solution is voting by Internet, but earlier this year the Pentagon canceled a plan to do so because of security concerns.

"The result is at least one more presidential election with absentee voting by `snail mail,'" he said.

Besides the slowness of the mail delivery, military personnel also face a confusing absentee voting procedure.

The Defense Department operates a voting assistance program to help troops who are assigned overseas and in this country, but outside their home states, understand the rules concerning absentee ballots and how to properly send them.

But the Pentagon's inspector general recently found the program was plagued by some of the same problems that occurred in the 2000 and 2002 elections.

One was that a large number of absentee military voters did not know the identity of their installation's voting assistance officer, who is supposed to help them get their ballots sent to state election officials on time and in the proper condition.

The report said that the program was "ineffective" at seven of the 10 military installations that were visited.

Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the military is behind the voting assistance program "110 percent." Of the problems pointed out by the General Accounting Office and the Pentagon's inspector general, she said, "We continue to have lessons learned from previous years and will do better this year than we have done in the past. We will strive always to do better."

The General Accounting Office reported that troops in Iraq received more than 65 million pounds of mail in 2003. Last summer, the Air Force Times reported, the mail backup was enough to cover three football fields with letters and packages stacked 10 feet high.

The GAO said delivery problems surfaced early in the Iraq war, but measuring the timeliness of the mail service was difficult because the military did not have "a reliable, accurate system in place."

While the delivery times for test letters fell within 12-18 days - the "current wartime standard," the report said - actual delivery times were at least a month and sometimes as long as four. Many troops also said that they never received mail that they knew had been sent to them.

Problems with mail and voting are not new in the military. More than a half-century ago, President Harry S. Truman complained to Congress of the "patchwork quilt of complicated and conflicting regulations" that denied many troops the opportunity to vote.

More recently, a Defense Department task force in 2000 recommended outsourcing "much, if not all" of the military mail service to the U.S. Postal Service. The Postal Service replied that it could not handle the extra work and suggested civilian contractors as an option.

In 2001, the General Accounting Office looked at military voting and found that nearly two-thirds of the absentee ballots disqualified in the 2000 election were rejected because of tardiness or improperly completed ballots.

Problems continued even after the saga of Florida's absentee military ballots in 2000. Two years later in Missouri, more than 41 percent of all the military absentees who tried to vote were disenfranchised, according to a survey by the Military Voting Rights Project.

Many ballots in Missouri were never returned, while others were either tardy or improperly prepared. Wright said that if no improvements are made in time for this year's election, the number of absentee voters whose ballots won't be counted probably would remain unchanged.

"But if we start now, maybe we can cut that in half, which is still terrible."

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© 2004, The Kansas City Star Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services