Maintaining Voting Environment: Voters’ Rights Should Not Be Undermined

Elections are the foundation of democracy. The central and local governments should make every effort to maintain polling stations even in areas where the population is decreasing and to protect an environment that makes it easier for voters to cast their ballots.

The decline in the number of polling stations during elections has become an issue, particularly in rural areas, and measures are needed to respond to the situation. In national elections, there were 53,439 polling stations in the 2001 House of Councillors elections, but the number of polling stations in the 2022 upper house elections decreased to 46,016.

The main factor is the decline of rural communities. In areas with shrinking populations, municipalities have merged and schools have been consolidated in recent years.

Membership is decreasing in neighborhood associations and other local organizational groups that support local communities, and the people in such organizations are aging. An increasing number of communities are unable to secure “voting witnesses,” in keeping with the Public Offices Election Law which requires that at least two persons be selected for each polling station.

The witnesses are responsible for making sure that the voting is conducted fairly, but they are burdened with long hours of work.

One of the reasons for the decline in voter turnout is said to be that polling stations have become more distant, making it more difficult for voters to cast their ballots. Amid the decrease in polling stations resulting from the consolidation and closure of stations due to a lack of witnesses, a situation in which voters are deprived of the opportunity to cast their ballots must be avoided.

In 2019, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry revised the law to allow any voter to serve as an observer, eliminating the requirement that witnesses should be selected from residents of the community where a polling station is located.

Tottori Prefecture aims to introduce an online system for election monitoring to make it even easier to secure witnesses. The prefecture is considering starting the new system with the mayoral election and assembly by-election in the town of Chizu in June.

Specifically, one observer will be stationed at each polling station and the other will, for example, witness the situation via a monitor at the town office. The aim is to reduce the burden of traveling to distant polling stations.

The ministry has approved Tottori Prefecture’s plan on the condition that at least one person be present at each polling station.

It is understandable that the aim is to increase the number of people who can serve as observers and to maintain polling stations. Preparing carefully to avoid confusion in the event of a telecommunications failure is important.

It is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the system and to explore the possibility of expanding it to other municipalities.

The early voting system, which was introduced in 2003, was used by about 19.61 million voters in the 2022 upper house elections, which represents nearly 20% of the total number of voters. Further efforts should be made for this system to take root.

There are cases in which voting vehicles are dispatched to areas where polling stations have been closed, as well as those in which transportation to and from polling stations is provided.

There have also been more cases of setting up common polling stations at commercial facilities and other locations where voters can cast their ballots in a local government election, instead of at designated polling stations.

It is important for local governments to cooperate with the central government and devise effective measures in accordance with local conditions.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 27, 2024)