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Both parties reaching for votes from abroad

Absentee ballots crucial in election

PRAGUE -- A sign on the door of a popular English-language bookstore cafe in downtown Prague urges Americans living in the Czech capital to come in, register to vote, and help ''Re-Defeat Bush."

Inside, as volunteers from Democrats Abroad helped her fill out a form requesting an absentee ballot, Georgina Agoitia could not recall the last time she voted. Haresh Shah admitted he ''got lazy" in 2000 but said he will not let that happen again. And Jason Burleson, who also did not cast a ballot in the last presidential election, said he feels ''motivated" this time around.

''People like to make jokes about Bush, but I don't find the situation very funny," Burleson, a 26-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., who teaches English in Prague, said after registering.

''Four more years of him scares me."

Kerry cuts short a day of relaxation at home. A2

In Berlin, meanwhile, former vice president Dan Quayle last week urged a group of about 100 activists from Republicans Abroad to push hard to get out the GOP's overseas vote.

''It was the absentee ballots that turned the tide in Florida," Quayle said, referring to the 2000 Florida vote, which Bush won in a highly contested recount in which absentee ballots figured prominently. ''Every vote counts. We all need to get that word out."

As President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry, his presumptive Democratic challenger, canvass the United States, and their campaigns saturate the airwaves with advertisements, both political parties also are paying unprecedented attention to the millions of Americans living abroad.

With analysts predicting that the November election could be every bit as close as the Bush-Gore finish in 2000, the consensus is that the overseas vote could be decisive, especially because of absentee ballots counted in such swing states as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

''The overseas vote . . . can make or break this election," said Sharon Manitta, spokeswoman for Democrats Abroad, who lives in Salisbury, England.

In the 2000 race, Al Gore led by 202 votes in Florida before absentee ballots -- many from military members abroad -- were counted. Bush ultimately won by 537 votes after a US Supreme Court ruling blocked a statewide recount.

That recount had begun haltingly, after the state's highest court expanded one that had been sought by Gore in some counties.

The trouble with overseas voters, officials from both parties say, is that they are difficult to track down and prohibitively expensive to poll.

They also traditionally have been reluctant to vote, perhaps because of the extra steps required to cast a ballot from abroad.

''This is a very strange bloc of voters, spread over a lot of land and . . . very difficult to find," said Rachelle Jailer Valladares, international chairwoman of Democrats Abroad, who lives in London.

No one can say for certain how many Americans live abroad, although most estimates range from 4 million to 6 million. The figures include more than 400,000 members of the military, a roughly equal number of military family members, and 100,000 civilian US government employees.

Although Republicans have long claimed a 3-to-1 advantage in overseas voters, little is known about the party affiliation and voting history of current expatriates, or which states they are from -- making them difficult for both parties to target.

Democrats Abroad, which is active in more than 37 countries as an official branch of the Democratic Party and will send voting delegates to the party's convention in Boston, has held high-profile voter registration drives and hopes to capitalize on perceived anger against Bush.

''I am willing to register as many people as I can, because I am absolutely certain that 80 percent of them will vote against Bush," said Creag Hayes, chairman of Democrats Abroad in the Czech Republic.

According to estimates provided by the Foreign Voter Assistance Program, run by the Department of Defense to facilitate overseas voting, turnout among nongovernment American civilians abroad in the past four presidential elections has fluctuated between 31 percent and 38 percent of eligible voters.

But military turnout has ranged from 64 percent to 69 percent; and turnout among government-employed civilians has ranged from 64 percent to 79 percent.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, based in Washington, D.C., said there is a core of overseas voters -- those serving in military and working for large corporations -- that tends to vote Republican. But if turnout increases significantly among other American civilians living abroad, which seems possible this election season, the trend should help the Democrats, he added.

''We are likely to experience a higher voter turnout, partly due to mobilization and partly due to the high stakes," Gans said. ''This may be one of the critical elections in American history. The country has not been as polarized as it is now since . . . Vietnam."

The Democratic strategy of focusing on anger against Bush seems to be yielding results. Membership in Democrats Abroad has doubled since the beginning of this year from 8,000 to 16,000, and chapters all over the world are reporting a significant rise in voter registrations. In Britain, for example, the organization has registered 4,000 voters, compared with a few hundred at this time in 2000, according to officials with Democrats Abroad.

''People are just coming out of the woodwork," Manitta said.

Democrats Abroad also is receiving queries from military personnel overseas and is setting up a branch in Iraq under the slogan ''Donkeys in the Desert."

In trying to mine overseas votes, Republicans Abroad is using a more low-key approach, relying on its website, targeted e-mails, databases of known supporters, and VIP events such as the luncheon last week with Quayle. This weekend, Republicans Abroad, which the group says is active in 50 countries, will hold a regional meeting in Berlin with James Gilmore, former Virginia governor and former Republican National Committee chairman, as the keynote speaker.

The organization plans major ad buys this fall in Stars and Stripes -- a Pentagon-financed newspaper widely read by military personnel overseas -- as well as the International Herald Tribune and other overseas English-language papers, according to Robert Pingeon, European chairman of Republicans Abroad, who lives in Paris.

GOP officials, who are reporting a 70 percent increase in requests for overseas voter assistance, said they are not worried about the Democrats' drive to win votes abroad. ''Historically, we have owned this vote," Pingeon said, adding that the ''shrillness" of the Democrats is energizing Republican voters. ''Remember Nixon's silent majority," he said in reference to a phrase Richard Nixon coined in a 1969 speech.

To vote from overseas, US citizens must fill out a Federal Post Card Application requesting an absentee ballot and send it to election officials in the US town or county where they last voted or resided. An absentee ballot is then sent to the overseas voter.

Demand has been so high this year that Democrats Abroad said the Federal Voting Assistance Program has had difficulty providing enough application forms to prospective voters.

On Wednesday, three Democratic members of Congress, Carolyn Maloney of New York, John Larson of Connecticut, and Steny Hoyer of Maryland, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld asking him to address the issue. ''As we write to you, millions of Americans around the globe are wishing to register for absentee ballots," the letter said. ''We respectfully request that you act immediately to print and distribute the necessary forms so that American citizens . . . will be able to vote in elections this year."

Federal voter assistance officials say they will do everything possible to make sure all Americans overseas are able to vote. They also noted that the application form is available online at www.fvap.gov.

''Our goal is to get the voter registration forms into the hands of every voter living overseas," said Navy Lieutenant Commander Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the voter assistance program. ''If they ask for one, we'll send them two."

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