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American soldiers, civilians vote in Afghanistan

Kabul_American soldiers, aid workers and military contractors in Afghanistan are filling out absentee ballots this week and sending them back to the U.S. to be counted by election officials.

U.S. soldiers and citizens in Afghanistan - which has no reliable mail service - face difficulties making sure their votes get counted. But the U.S. military has made a big push this year to help soldiers request ballots, advertising the process with TV commercials, posters and ballot drives outside dining halls and recreations centers.

The top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, said he thinks this year's effort was "the most significant drive probably in our nation's history" to make sure deployed soldiers can vote.

"I've been around for 32 years and been overseas more times than I can count, and it used to be near impossible for me or my spouse to vote," Schloesser told The Associated Press. "We've come a heck of a long ways and we've devoted a lot of resources so U.S. military personnel can vote this year."

Schloesser said that in previous years deployed forces feared their vote would not count, but he said he hasn't seen reason to believe votes wouldn't count this election cycle.

At the main U.S. base at Bagram on Wednesday, soldiers and civilian contractors filled out ballots known as the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. Those ballots are used when a person who has requested an absentee ballot has not received one.

"This is a great opportunity," Charles Schwan Jr., a civilian contractor who works in strategic planning for the military, said after filling out his write-in absentee ballot. "I was thinking how to do this and the voting registration officer ... made it so easy and now I feel like I have a choice, and whoever wins at least I had a choice."

Democrats Abroad, the official Democratic Party organization for Americans living outside the United States, opened a new chapter in Afghanistan this autumn and helped dozens of Americans request ballots, said Susan Marx, the group's chairwoman.

But because almost no one in the group received a ballot back through Afghanistan's notoriously unreliable mail system, Marx this week is helping members fill out and send in the write-in absentee ballot.

"I think we have unique circumstances here in that the mail system is not something we can use," Marx said. "If you live in Australia, it's a lot easier for them to send the ballot to your mailbox in Sydney. ... What I'm hearing from most of the voters is that if it wasn't for our efforts, reaching out to them, most of them weren't going to vote."

Republicans Abroad does not list an Afghanistan chapter, and Marx said she has not heard of any Republican group in the country.

The U.S. military has about 200 voting assistance officers around eastern Afghanistan to distribute information and help soldiers vote, said Maj. Ty Walls, a voting assistance officer at Bagram.

1st Sgt. Marc Maynard, a member of the New York National Guard serving at a U.S. base in Kabul, said he voted in local elections in 2003 from his station in the Iraq-Kuwait theater. He said the process this year has been much easier.

"The information is easier to find," Maynard said. "I was one of very few people that I knew at the time (2003) that bothered to vote, and I had to figure it out on my own. We didn't have much in the way of voting assistance where I was."

Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots have to be sent in during a 30-day window before the Nov. 4 election. Most states require the ballots to be received by election day; others require that ballots be postmarked by election day.

Jason Straziuso, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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