During the chaotic 2000 election, thousands of troops overseas voted for president, only to have their ballots rejected. Others did not receive ballots at all. And some found the entire process confusing.
Four years later — with more than 160,000 troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — Democrats and Republicans alike worry that the same thing will happen. They say reforms enacted by Congress after 2000 have not fixed the problems.
"I just pray for our country. We have to allow the military vote to be counted," said Joan Hills, director of Republicans Abroad, which helps U.S. citizens vote from overseas. Her organization's Web site has received 1,700 hits a day in the past two weeks from worried military personnel who did not receive their ballots.
Hills and other election watchers say that failing to count military ballots in this election is even more unforgivable than in 2000 because the votes now represent Americans risking their lives in battle.
"Not allowing military members to vote during wartime would be devastating," said Duke University political science professor Peter Feaver. "They're not sitting in comfortable offices in Germany anymore. Now they're under mortar attack in Iraq."
With so many troops fighting in the Middle East, members of the military could play a huge role in deciding the next commander-in-chief in this dead-heat presidential contest.
In 2000, for example, Florida officials disqualified 1,527 military votes because they lacked postmarks. President Bush won Florida — and the presidency — by 537 votes.
The military traditionally votes Republican. In one recent informal survey of the armed forces and their family members, 72 percent of respondents said they favored Bush over Democrat John Kerry.
Many of the problems that marred the military vote in 2000 are cropping up again.
More than a dozen states — including those too close to call — missed the recommended deadline to mail ballots overseas. One of the reasons: legal arguments over whether independent candidate Ralph Nader should be listed on ballots.
More confusing are conflicting state rules governing how to count an overseas vote.
Basically, military ballots must get to the service member's local election official in the United States before a certain deadline. The cut-off dates vary. Some states also require a notary or witness to sign the ballot.
About 20 states, including California, Texas and Alabama, accept faxed ballots from overseas, but finding a working fax machine in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan can be difficult. In Missouri and North Dakota, officials will accept e-mailed votes, but troops must complete a series of steps on their computer for the ballot to count.
"There will be thousands of military votes that don't get counted this time," said Samuel Wright, director of the Military Voting Rights Project of the National Defense Committee. "I hope it's not as bad as 2000, but it's going to be a serious problem."
Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, said Friday that military officials had tried to fix voting problems from 2000, and he downplayed the idea that there could be a repeat this year.
"We worked extremely hard on the absentee ballot program and my hope is every soldier who wanted the opportunity to vote in the election was afforded that opportunity," Cody said at 101st Airborne Division headquarters in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Nearly 30 percent of registered military voters did not get a ballot 2000, or got it too late. This year, Wright estimates between 20 percent and 40 percent of service members will not have their vote counted because of slow mail and differing state rules.
Because of GOP complaints about service members not receiving their ballots, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell agreed Friday to extend the state's deadline for counting overseas ballots by eight days, to Nov. 10.
Since the Florida debacle, the Pentagon has announced a series of steps designed to make every military vote count. Several have failed.
After spending $22 million, the Defense Department abandoned an Internet-based voting system after citing security concerns — leaving regular mail as the main way to vote from abroad.
In addition, a Defense Department program that helps Americans vote from overseas blocked access to its Web site for fear of hackers, locking out would-be voters requesting registration cards and absentee ballots. The site did not reopen until late September, although the department recommends allowing at least 45 days for requesting, receiving and mailing ballots.
In Baghdad, exactly one week before Election Day, the Voting Assistance Officer at the military-run Ibn Sina Hospital was on leave.
Sgt. Ahnjala Haggerty, a 30-year-old medic from Missouri, was so confused by the rules that she submitted her voter registration form three times before getting it right.
"It's kind of a pain to do," she said. "I sent in the card and they sent it back to me because it was wrong and I sent it in again and it was wrong again."
Finally, she got her ballot. But with only six days to go, Haggerty still had not chosen a president. "I'll definitely decide before 2 p.m.," she said. "Because that's when the mail leaves."
Contributing: Edward Harris, Kim Hefling.