Inside the magnificent atrium of Al Faw Palace, a retreat for Iraqi military officers under Saddam Hussein, hangs a poster aimed at the U.S. soldiers who now occupy the building. "It's your future -- VOTE for it," it urges. At a forward operating base on the other side of Baghdad, a "voting assistance officer" appears on a big-screen television and reminds hundreds of soldiers to cast their ballots in time for November's presidential election.
First Lt. Phan Ton, who is helping coordinate the military's voter education effort, said interest among the troops is high: "I think with soldiers being out here, they think they should have a say in something that could affect them in the future."
But whether the men and women serving their country overseas will get their say is far from sure.
The Defense Department has embarked on what it says is the most aggressive voter education campaign in military history, hoping to solve problems that caused thousands of military absentee ballots to be nullified in the 2000 election. But the effort has been marred by missteps.
An Internet voting plan was canceled, and a high-tech voting system the Pentagon is trying for the first time has been criticized by computer experts who say it could be tampered with and by voting-rights advocates who say it requires soldiers and Marines to forgo their right to vote in secret. Critics, including members of the Election Assistance Commission, which was established after the 2000 presidential recount to help the nation develop new voting procedures, worry that service members may again be disenfranchised.
"Has it improved? Yes," said Derek Stewart, director of military personnel issues at the Government Accountability Office, which has written several reports critical of the Pentagon's efforts. "Is it perfect? No. On November 2nd, is it going to work the way it's supposed to? That's anyone's guess," he said.
The military does not keep voter registration figures, but voting assistance officers in Iraq said they have noticed a sharp increase in the number of service members who want to vote -- the first time since the Vietnam War that a presidential election has been held when there is such a large troop deployment.
While Republicans have traditionally enjoyed a solid advantage among service members and their families, some analysts believe that long combat deployments and economic hardships endured by reservists and National Guard members could allow Democrats to cut into that support. President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry are both courting military voters, and a shift could prove important in battleground states with large military populations.
The problem may be that service members either will not be able to vote or that their ballots will not be counted in time. The military's history of difficulties in getting paper ballots to other countries was highlighted during the 2000 election debacle in Florida. Ballots arrived in supervisors' offices postmarked after Election Day, not postmarked at all or lacking a required witness signature. The military vote broke in Bush's favor, and a fierce battle ensued as to whether those ballots should be counted.
Problems were not limited to Florida; by the Pentagon's estimates, up to 29 percent of military personnel who wanted to vote but did not either did not get an absentee ballot or received it too late. A 2001 GAO report found that overseas ballots sent by military personnel and civilians were four times more likely to be disqualified than domestic absentee ballots.
Since then, the Defense Department has announced several initiatives, including efforts to ensure that mailed ballots are given priority handling. The Pentagon has worked with state elections officials so that many states will try to mail absentee ballots at least 45 days before an election to ensure service members receive them in time to vote, though some have missed their deadlines because of legal disputes over whether to include Ralph Nader and a variety of initiatives on ballots. Most states will also fax blank ballots to service members, and some allow ballots to be downloaded from the Internet.
Defense officials have tried to make sure ballots are returned quickly to service members' hometowns. Twenty-three states will accept the voted ballots by fax, and Missouri and North Dakota announced they will accept ballots via a new Defense Department e-mail system. "We're confident that we're providing all the information and the capability that our service members, as well as U.S. citizens living overseas, need to obtain and return absentee ballots in a timely manner," said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Defense Department spokeswoman.
But skeptics such as Samuel F. Wright, director of the Military Voting Rights Project for the National Defense Committee, point to problems that have plagued a Pentagon effort he said remains "disorganized."
"I'm concerned there will still be a lot of people disenfranchised," he said.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon was forced to cancel a $22 million Internet voting project after security experts said the system was so insecure that it could jeopardize the integrity of the election.
A GAO report released this past spring found continuing problems with the military postal system when it came to combat zone delivery. In May, the Pentagon's inspector general found in surprise visits to 10 foreign bases that the Defense Department's overseas voter awareness program was often ineffective and given low priority.
Some service members in Iraq say that, despite the program, they remain confused about voting requirements that differ from state to state. The 2004-2005 voting assistance guide for overseas citizens -- the bible for all voting assistance officers in Iraq -- is 369 pages and ends with Appendix F.
The Defense Department is charged with assisting not only 2.7 military members and their dependents with voting, but also approximately 3.4 million Americans who live overseas. Last week, the Pentagon temporarily blocked access to a Web site widely used by overseas civilians to download registration forms, citing concerns about computer hacking. It reopened the site after Democratic groups targeting those voters complained.
The Pentagon's plan to allow service members to return their ballots by fax and e-mail has raised concerns from local election officials and computer security experts. Most of the ballots will go through a private contractor, and the Pentagon will not say what measures it is taking to prevent hacking and ensure the company properly forwards each ballot to local election officials. Heightening concern is that Patricia Williams, chief executive of Omega Technologies Inc., is on the National Republican Congressional Committee's Business Advisory Council. She donated $6,600 to the committee in this election cycle.
The Defense Department said the ballots will be secure, but declined to detail security measures that "could open the system up to vulnerabilities."
Beyond security issues, election officials said the use of a contractor could present problems. Meredith Imwalle, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State, said some states will accept only faxed ballots from voters. "What they haven't done is communicate with the states exactly what the plan is," she said. "There may be some states that can't accept a faxed ballot through a middleman."
Others worry because the e-mail and fax system does not keep ballots secret; anyone who sees the e-mail or fax will know how a service member voted. "We've not endorsed this notion of violating the secret ballot at all," said DeForest B. Soaries, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission.
Andrew Borene, a former Marine who served in Iraq and is a Kerry volunteer in Minnesota, said many of his service friends will be afraid to vote for Kerry under circumstances in which their ballot is not secret. "You'll have an officer looking over your shoulder, and most of them are Republican," he said. "If they perceive that their vote for Kerry will be misinterpreted as not showing support for the mission and the commander in chief, they'll be reluctant to do it."
A survey of 4,000 readers of Army Times Publishing Co. newspapers, who are active-duty, reservists or National Guard members, finds "overwhelming" support for Bush, Senior Managing Editor Robert Hodierne said. The survey, to be released Monday, found the approval for Bush's handling of the war lagging behind the service members' desire to see him reelected but much higher than that of the general electorate.
Although Hodierne said the readers surveyed, who are mainly career military, were "four-square behind the president," he noted that the results do not necessarily reflect the views of younger enlisted service members or junior officers in the National Guard and reserve.
Viewed from the ground in Iraq, the presidential campaign can seem far more nuanced and personal than it does in the United States. Sgt. David Morphew, 27, of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., registered and cast his write-in ballot during an August registration drive at Camp Victory, a sprawling U.S. base on the grounds of the Al Faw Palace near Baghdad International Airport. He declined to disclose his vote because of U.S. military regulations but made his leanings clear.
"I think we have two distinct choices right now," said Morphew, speaking near a palace swimming pool where he is a lifeguard. "One supports our soldiers and realizes how important our mission is here. The other takes a different view and thinks about how quickly we can get out," he said. "If we give in to that, it makes the sacrifice of the people who died here meaningless."
But Sgt. Marc Moyette, 29, a National Guardsman from Riverside, Calif., has a different view. "A lot of guys who don't normally vote are voting for Kerry because they see him as our biggest resolver in terms of the getting the [expletive] out of here."
Fainaru reported from Baghdad. Staff writer Jackie Spinner in Baghdad contributed to this report.