Prevent Voter Turnout from Falling as Number of Polling Stations Dwindles

Largely due to depopulation and municipal mergers, the number of polling stations set up for elections has been on the decline. Every possible measure must be taken to prevent a drop in voter turnout because people have become reluctant to cast ballots.

In gubernatorial elections in Gifu and Yamagata prefectures, which officially started on Jan. 7, the number of polling stations is lower than in previous gubernatorial races and the 2019 House of Councillors election.

In an Akita gubernatorial election scheduled for April, polling stations in Yuzawa are said to have been consolidated from 61 into 28. The Yokote city government is also reorganizing its 63 polling stations so that there are 57.

There are no legal limits on the number of polling stations. It is up to municipalities to decide. The number of polling stations nationwide fell from 53,439 in the 2001 upper house election to 47,044 in the 2019 upper house election.

The drop in the number of polling stations is inevitable, as it has become difficult to secure election observers and other relevant personnel due to the declining population and the graying of society. However, efforts must be made to prevent a situation in which willing voters abstain from casting ballots because their designated polling stations have become distant. This year, a House of Representatives election is scheduled to be held.

Support from local governments is essential in tackling this issue. It is necessary to provide voters who find it difficult to get to polling stations with transportation assistance through measures such as offering taxi coupons and bus tickets.

The active use of early voting is also likely to be effective. It is hoped that local governments will increase their efforts, such as by setting up temporary polling stations at community centers and using buses as mobile polling stations.

Official gazettes for elections should be distributed promptly to enable voters to examine the opinions of political parties and candidates even if they cast their ballots in early voting.

It is also important to improve the environment on voting day. Some municipal governments have set up “common polling stations” in which any voter in that municipality can vote, in addition to polling stations designated by their election administration committees. If such common polling stations are located in major commercial facilities, voters can cast their ballots when they go shopping.

In Mitake, Gifu Prefecture, the number of polling stations has been reduced from 12 to five in the ongoing gubernatorial election. However, the municipality said it intends to maintain voter convenience by making all five stations common polling stations.

The use of common polling stations has become possible in national elections since the 2016 upper house election. However, only 13 cities, towns and villages set up such stations at 45 locations in the 2019 upper house election. This method has not been taken up widely because many local governments have been reluctant to invest in systems to prevent fraud and other election irregularities.

The mail-in ballot system drew attention in the latest U.S. presidential election. In Japan, only people such as those graded Level 5, the highest in the five-level rankings for nursing care needs, are allowed to vote this way. To make more people eligible for the system, measures need to be implemented to prevent voting under another person’s name and other forms of election fraud.

It seems the central government ought to take the initiative in developing better systems and mechanisms by utilizing digitization, which is one of its key policies.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 11, 2021.