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Tuesday, 14 November, 2000, 19:12 GMT
Absentee vote could hold the key
Counting absentee ballots in Orange Co Florida
The deadline for absentee votes is midnight local time
By BBC News Online's Tom Housden

After days of chaos following the knife-edge American election, never has so much ridden on the verdict of the thousands of absentee voters.

The court decision not to allow recounted votes to be included in the final tallies means Al Gore's hopes of victory depend, barring an appeal, on him achieving a majority through postal ballots.

The absentee vote is made up of several thousand military personnel serving overseas, expatriate Americans and voters registered in Florida, but living elsewhere in the United States.

Under US electoral rules, they may exercise their right to vote upon requesting ballot forms from the state with which they are registered.

These must then be returned to that state within 10 days of the date of the election - a deadline which expires at midnight local time (1900 GMT) on Friday.

Hard to predict

Some estimates put the total absentee ballot as between 2,000 and 3,000, with 500 of these coming from military voters.

In every election since 1980, when Florida began counting overseas ballots after election day, the majority of these votes have gone to the Republican candidate.

Joe Lieberman
Joe Lieberman's vice presidential candidacy has boosted his party's Jewish support
But this time, some observers believe a number of factors may have swung the absentee vote, making it far harder to predict.

The expatriate American community of Israel alone is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000. Many observers believe Al Gore's choice of Joe Lieberman - an orthodox Jew - as running mate will have boosted his support there.

Others suggest the history of poor relations between America and Israel during the administration of George W Bush's father may have undermined the Republican vote.

However, one major slice of the absentee vote the Republican Party has long been able to rely on are the thousands of US military personnel stationed overseas.

There are seven large navy bases and five major airforce bases in Florida, home bases to military personnel posted in Western Europe, Kosovo and South Korea.

Florida is also frequently chosen as a legal residence by servicemen and women stationed in other states and overseas because it lacks a state income tax.

Republican loyalties

Historically, the military's political loyalties would seem crystal clear. In 1996 military voters backed Republican candidate Bob Dole by 54%, compared with the 43% he received nationwide.

US troops
US troops overseas have traditionally favoured the Republicans
But this time, some commentators seem less sure, and suggest Al Gore may prove more popular to the growing numbers of ethnic minorities in the armed forces who traditionally favour the Democrats.

Some reports also suggest that only a quarter of the total number of absentee votes will come from military voters.

The Los Angeles Times reported the findings of sociologist Professor Charles Moskos, who conducted a survey of military personnel formerly deployed in Kosovo.

According to his results, 32% of those questioned described themselves as liberal, 44% middle-of the-road, and 24% as conservative.

The paper also quoted one serviceman based in Berlin as saying the vote seemed split between Bush and Gore by roughly 50-50.

Grey area

On a wider scale, most analysts agree that measuring absentee voters' intentions is too inexact a science to be able to predict any firm trends.

"Its just not something we's a grey area," said Curtis Gans from the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

He told BBC News Online: "Overseas voters tend to favour the Republicans, because they're often coming from business and the military."

According to Mr Gans, this pattern tends to be mirrored in the United States, despite some isolated pockets of Democratic support from areas such as California and Washington State.

There have been close presidential races before, but never has the outcome swung on the views of a seemingly underestimated and forgotten section of the electorate.

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