OKLAHOMA CITY — Soldiers with the Oklahoma National Guard are busy getting adjusted to their new military roles in Iraq, but that won't stop them from voting in next week's primary election.
Most members of the 45th Infantry Brigade already have landed in the Middle East, arriving first in Kuwait before deploying to Iraq, said Lt. Col. John Altebaumer, a spokesman for the Oklahoma National Guard. Each has been briefed about how to register and obtain absentee ballots from their home districts.
"It's probably not the first thing on their mind, but I do know that there was a voting assistance message that went out to them emphasizing to them that no matter where they are or what process they're in, they will be afforded the opportunity to vote," Altebaumer said. "It's a right they have, and we want to make sure that right is given to them."
It's also a right that military voters take seriously. About 73 percent of military voters participated in the 2004 general election, while the number of federal civilians overseas was about 77 percent, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the Department of Defense. That compares to about 64 percent among the general public.
Federal officials have seen an increase in participation among military members since the Federal Voters Assistance Program has become more active in providing information and voter services to servicemen and women both at home and abroad, Withington said.
"The mission is to foster voting participation," he said. "They inform and educate United States citizens and military personnel.
"Additionally, the states have consistently improved and simplified their systems for abasentee voting."
Oklahoma Election Board Secretary Michael Clingman said absentee ballots for Oklahoma's Feb. 5 presidential primary election were sent out in December, so Oklahoma National Guard soldiers actually had a chance to vote before deploying to Iraq.
As part of the FVAP program, each military unit has a voting assistance officer who helps service members register to vote and obtain absentee ballots from their home state.
Air Force 1st Lt. Christopher Wallace, who serves as a voting assistance officer for his unit at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, said he frequently answers questions colleagues in his unit may have about voting.
"We give them every opportunity register, and part of my job is to advertise that," Wallace said. "It's very convenient. It's actually more convenient than voting in person."
By registering to vote absentee, soldiers will receive a ballot for every election in their home district, even school board elections and municipal bond elections.
"It's very helpful for me to be an absentee voter," said Wallace, who votes in his former home of Richardson, Texas, a Dallas suburb. "I get a voice in my home of record and where my parents still live. I can still influence local elections."
For Oklahoma voters wishing to vote by absentee ballot, Wednesday is the deadline for requesting a ballot for Tuesday's election. Ballots must be mailed to the state Election Board office by Tuesday.
Also, in-person absentee voting will take place at county election board offices from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Monday and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.