Pauline Welby has grave concerns that confusion and unnecessary hurdles will keep her and fellow Americans living overseas from voting in the Nov. 2 presidential election.
Ms. Welby, a Franklin County voter who resides in France, said she is worried other expatriates won't be able to cast what could prove to be the deciding votes in Ohio - a battleground state in the race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
A lack of voting information and complicated procedures coupled with political wrangling have made it difficult for those living overseas to know for certain their ballots will count, she said.
"There are a number of barriers for Americans abroad wanting to exercise their right to vote," said Ms. Welby, a post-doctoral fellow living in Grenoble since December, who will support John Kerry in the election.
"Not everyone like me will be paranoid enough to call and make sure their ballot is on the way. There will be thousands of voters overseas waiting for their ballots."
In Ohio, Ms. Welby said politics has stalled the mailing of absentee ballots overseas, putting the right to vote for thousands of voters at risk.
A rule requiring Ohio voter registration forms be submitted on "80-pound" paper has been especially troublesome to those overseas trying to register to vote, she said.
That rule, which has been on the books in Ohio for more than a decade, was softened by Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who directed county elections bureaus to accept ballots printed on any paper Wednesday. Three weeks ago, Mr. Blackwell, a Republican, had reminded the same officials that they were required to reject ballots that didn't meet the paper-weight requirement.
In the meantime, Ms. Welby said overseas voters were left unsure if their applications would be accepted in time to vote.
"I can't go to Franklin County and ask for paper copies of my voter information," Ms. Welby said. "I am going to get it from the Web."
Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said the rule is nothing new for voters. And, he said, voters can submit the federal application that doesn't have a paper-weight requirement.
The motive for requiring a higher-quality paper is to protect registration forms from being destroyed in the mail, he said. Those who submit applications on other types of paper will be asked to resubmit the form on the 80-pound paper, but paper quality won't impact their status for this election.
"If there is any confusion, it is specifically caused by those trying to confuse the process for some type of partisan gain," Mr. LoParo said. "These are rules and procedures that have been in place for more than a decade."
Lingering procedural questions are more troublesome than ever, says Steven Hill, a senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-partisan organization that studies election issues.
"All of the sudden this stuff is pouring and we are seeing how disorganized this really is," said Mr. Hill, who is expecting a dramatic increase in overseas voting in this election.
Americans living overseas are often hit the hardest when it comes to voting confusion, Mr. Hill said. There are an estimated 7 million eligible U.S. voters overseas.
"These Americans that are living overseas, they have the right to vote and suddenly they are finding it extremely difficult to vote," he said. "It shouldn't be that hard."
Paula Hicks-Hudson, director of the Lucas County Board of Elections, said her office hasn't fielded many questions from overseas voters. She said about 500 overseas voters have registered to vote and most have arrived on the correct paper stock.
Ms. Hicks-Hudson said absentee ballots have been delayed because of the decision by Mr. Blackwell to remove Ralph Nader's name from the ballot.
In Ohio, overseas absentee ballots must be postmarked by election day and received within 10 days. Absentee ballots are due when the polls close in Michigan on election day, which doesn't have a paper-weight requirement for registration forms.
"When we are ready to mail, we'll be able to mail - that's our goal," Ms. Hicks-Hudson said. "
As both parties jockey for position on the prize of overseas votes, those living abroad like Ms. Welby are trying to stay optimistic that their ballots will arrive in time and make it back to the U.S. to be counted.
"Millions of people around the globe don't have the right to vote," she said. "I realize how precious that right is. Wherever I am, I want to exert that right to vote."
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