From the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk to the barracks of Camp Zama, this week’s U.S. presidential election has a special resonance for America’s troops abroad.
With a war raging and the race just days away, the turnout in Japan is expected to be heavy.
“This is something that is on a lot of sailors’ minds, definitely,” said Lt. Brooke Dewalt, a public affairs officer on the Kitty Hawk, the only aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy that has its home port outside of the United States. “Making sure they can vote is a very high priority for us.”
Along with electing a president, Tuesday’s vote will also decide whether President George W. Bush or challenger John Kerry assumes the title of commander in chief.
In Japan, one of the largest stations away from home for U.S. troops not in combat, the results will directly impact tens of thousands of troops and their families.
Nearly 50,000 troops, including the largest contingent of marines based outside the U.S. and a major air base in Okinawa, are in Japan.
The country is also home to the 7th Fleet, the largest in the U.S. Navy. Some 20,000 sailors and marines are assigned to the 21-ship fleet, though they are away from port roughly six months of the year.
Military personnel assigned overseas are treated much like other absentee voters. They must register in advance with their hometowns in the United States, and then await their ballot in the mail.
Dewalt said officers aboard the Kitty Hawk began a drive to register voters several months ago, while the aircraft carrier was still at sea. It is now back in port in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“We have constant reminders onboard about voting — don’t forget to register, don’t forget to vote,” he said. “We’ve had exceptional participation, registering more than 2,000 sailors.”
Dewalt noted that for many of the sailors — who average 19 to 20 years of age — this will be their first presidential election. The carrier has roughly 5,000 sailors aboard.
“Everyone has access to the news,” he said. “We’re inundated with it. It’s something a lot of sailors are talking about.”
Registration was also high among soldiers at the U.S. Army’s Japan headquarters.
“I would say interest in this election is very high,” said Sgt. Nathan Maxfield, a voter assistance representative at Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture. “Hardly any of us are able to be home for the elections, so we’ve got a whole system set up to help people register.”
Maxfield said the process has been smooth.
“Most people have already gotten their ballots,” Maxfield said. “I already sent mine back.”
To help soldiers figure out the voting process, assistance officers are assigned to each unit to answer questions and provide write-in ballots for anyone whose regular ballot doesn’t arrive in time. Maxfield said he was unaware of any problems in meeting the demand for such ballots so far.
“Some people were panicking that they might not get their absentee ballots in time,” Maxfield said. “But that doesn’t seem to be a problem.”
He said that although encouraged to register and vote, the actual decision is a private matter left up to each soldier.
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