Absentee ballots likely to decide next president

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The tight recount in Florida may give the last word on the presidential election to a relative handful of overseas voters who are eclectic, often conservative — and usually an electoral afterthought.

Several thousand ballots are expected from overseas absentee voters, who include a large concentration of military personnel, globe-trotting business people and a smaller number of dual citizens living in Israel. They must have their ballots postmarked by Nov. 7 and received for counting by Nov. 17.

These voters historically have favored Florida Republicans, state officials said, and in 1996 gave GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole 54 percent of their vote, compared to the 43 percent he received statewide.

Republican officials have cited these trends when predicting that Texas Gov. George W. Bush will take most of the overseas absentee ballots. Yet, Democratic campaign officials and some other analysts noted some other facts that could make the outcome less certain.

About 1,000 ballots, or more, may be received from Floridians living in Israel, a group that consists mostly of dual citizens and votes disproportionately Democratic. And the military vote could turn out to be less pro-Bush than expected, since enlisted personnel — who outnumber officers 6 to 1 — are more liberal than heavily Republican officers.

"Israel could help decide it," said Gideon Remez, foreign affairs editor of Israel Radio, to his listeners as they woke up Wednesday to one of the tightest presidential races in U.S. history.

Florida has a heavy concentration of military personnel and installations, including seven major Navy and five large Air Force bases. But Florida is also frequently chosen as legal residences by military personnel who live in other states because it lacks a state income tax.

The Air Force includes 5,200 personnel from Florida assigned in Europe and another 4,300 in the Pacific theater. Since the "all volunteer" Army began in the early 1970s, the Pentagon has tried hard to get its soldiers to vote in hopes of strengthening the bond between the military and civil society.

The Clinton administration has had a rocky relationship with the military, in part because of President Clinton’s avoidance of military service. Surveys show that many career military personnel believe that the administration has starved armed services budgets.

Yet some analysts contended that the troops may be more sympathetic to Democrats than it appears. They noted that the military has a disproportionately large number of minority members, who lean Democratic. About 37 percent of the active duty force is nonwhite.

Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who specializes in military studies, surveyed U.S. Army enlisted personnel deployed in Kosovo last September. He found that 32 percent described themselves as liberal, 44 percent as middle of the road and 24 percent as conservative.

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