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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Florida's Diverse Absentee Voters Take Unfamiliar Center Stage

Recount: Ballots from members of the military, affluent businesspeople and dual citizens are, for a change, crucial.

November 10, 2000|PAUL RICHTER and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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 businesspeople 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% of their vote, compared with the 43% he received statewide.

Republican officials have cited these trends when they have predicted 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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. base--A story in Friday's Times misidentified the location of Ramstein Air Base in Germany. It is near Kaiserslautern, in western Germany.

About 1,000 ballots, or more, may be received from Floridians living in Israel, a group that consists mostly of people holding dual citizenship 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 an additional 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 civilian society.

Military Perhaps Not a Lock for Bush

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% of the active-duty force is nonwhite.

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

One U.S. airman from Florida at the big Ramstein Air Base in Berlin said that, among the Air Force personnel he knew, the split was "about 50-50."

"The older guys are more Bush; the younger guys are more Gore," said Cedric Clark, a supporter of Vice President Al Gore who told Reuters that he was "on pins and needles" over the election.

There are about 85,000 registered American voters in Israel at any one time, according to David Froehlich, U.S. voting coordinator in Israel for the Federal Voter Commission. He said that they vote Democratic by a lopsided majority.

Of that number, an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 are Floridians, according to Democrats Abroad, a group that promotes absentee voting by party members.

Froehlich noted that American absentee voters in Europe, in contrast to those in Israel, lean strongly Republican. That's one reason, he said, that the Ronald Reagan administration began distributing at embassies a generic ballot that Americans could use to vote without arranging to have a form sent from their home states.

This year both parties put considerable effort and money into trying to get out the vote among the 6 million Americans living abroad.

Republicans Abroad, a Washington-based group that spent $600,000 on advertising and other activities, registered 3,000 GOP members, including about 1,200 based in Florida, according to Michael J. Jones, the group's executive director.

"We had our act together this year, big time," he said.

He contended that 70% of the overseas absentee American ballots were from Republicans, though Tom Fina, executive director of Democrats Abroad, called that claim "hogwash."

But American absentee voters from both parties said they were delighted to find themselves in a position to make a difference.

"Who would think the election might come down to a male model in Milan?" marveled 26-year-old Jamie Kelly, who is just that in Italy.

Thirty days ago, he said, he mailed his ballot to the Pinellas County election supervisor in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he grew up.

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