Postal voting fails to take root amid pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A leaflet explaining the postal ballot process

Coronavirus cases are rising nationwide amid campaigns for the House of Councillors election. On June 22, the day campaigning officially began, about 100,000 coronavirus patients were self-isolating at home or overnight care facilities.

Mail voting rules were relaxed in June last year to allow self-isolating coronavirus patients to vote. However, even though local governments have been making efforts to publicize the system, uptake has been low, which has been attributed to complicated procedures.

Postal voting is a form of absentee ballot. People can request ballots from their local government and cast their votes by mail.

Previously, the system was limited to people with severe physical disabilities, but a law was enforced last June to enable self-isolating coronavirus patients and people who had returned to Japan to vote by mail.

Local election commissions have been delivering leaflets explaining the mail voting process to the homes of self-isolating patients in cooperation with health centers, which have also been sending text messages to inform people of the system.

However, according to an Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry survey on local elections that had been conducted by February, voters did not utilize mail voting in about 80% of the elections held since June last year.

On Oct. 20, one day after the official start of campaigning for the lower house election, 2,899 coronavirus patients were self-isolating at home or hotels, but by election day only 324 postal ballots had been cast.

Since then, the number of coronavirus cases has drastically increased, but in the mayoral elections held last month in Tokyo, the uptake in mail voting was still low. No mail ballots were cast in Suginami Ward and Komae, while Chofu had only one postal vote.

Why is the use of the system not spreading?

According to political science Prof. Yoshihiko Takenaka of Tsukuba University, complicated procedures are to blame.

As part of measures to prevent fraud and mitigate the spread of the virus, voters have to first get mail-ballot request forms from election commissions’ websites and other methods. The completed request forms need to be put in a standard envelope, and the standard envelope needs to be sent to the election body in a plastic envelope with a fastener. The completed ballots need to be sent in three envelopes, which will again have to be in a plastic envelope, and mailed by someone who is not infected with the virus.

The government also asks voters to disinfect their hands and the plastic envelope, and to wear masks and plastic gloves when handling the items.

“I understand the purpose of emphasizing infection control, but the system is not easy to use because of the many steps involved,” Takenaka said. “It’s especially difficult for people in poor health. At the very least, consideration should be given to simplifying the process, such as making it possible to submit mail-ballot request forms online.”