USA

Election offices across Florida opened Monday to give voters in the battleground state the option of casting their ballots ahead of time. Early voting was introduced after the 2000 election, in which Florida decided the presidential results by only 537 votes in a protracted recount that introduced such terms as butterfly ballots and hanging chads to the lexicon. Officials believe early balloting should encourage a larger turnout and give the state, which is introducing new touchscreen voting machines, adequate time to resolve problems that may arise. Democratic candidate John Kerry and running mate John Edwards campaigned in the state Sunday. As for President Bush, he returned to the campaign trail in New Jersey after his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, announced that he will not run for president in 2008.

The Army has opened an investigation into the alleged refusal by 18 reservists to take part in a fuel convoy in Iraq last week, Brig. Gen. James Chambers said at a news conference in Baghdad Sunday. According to USA Today, the inquiry was ordered to determine whether the soldiers' refusal to go on the potentially risky mission could be considered a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The wealth gap in the US increased after the most recent recession, which began in 2000 and ended in late 2001, according to a study of Census Bureau data released by the Pew Hispanic Center. After accounting for inflation, net worth (the combined value of property and investments) rose 17 percent for white households between 1996 and 2002, increased 14 percent for Hispanic homes, but fell 16 percent for black households.

The crash of the Genesis spacecraft in the Utah desert last month may have occurred because switches needed to deploy a parachute were installed backwards, according to NASA findings reported on the scinence news website nature.com. The capsule carried solar wind particles to be used in research.

Following a survey of more than 40,000 personnel, the Navy has instituted a more relaxed dress code. For female sailors, who normally dress in slacks, skirts are now optional. They also may ditch their unpopular "granny bags" under the policy.

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