A decrease in the number of polling stations is feared to make it difficult for voters to cast their ballots in nationwide elections in Japan.
A total of 47,044 polling stations will be set up for the July 21 House of Councillors election, a decrease of 858 from the previous upper house poll three years ago. This is because polling stations have been integrated as a result of depopulation.
The decrease has been continuing for a long time also because of mergers between municipalities. In the 2013 upper house race, about 870 fewer polling stations were set up. This tendency is particularly conspicuous in prefectures that have many sparsely populated regions such as mountainous areas.
Many local bodies cite difficulties in securing people to work as observers as the reason for decreasing their polling stations. This is largely because of the aging of the population.
No law stipulates criteria for the number of polling stations to be established. There are numerous elderly residents in neighborhoods where polling stations have been abolished. Many senior citizens in such areas are forced to travel a long distance to go to the polls, often causing them physical and mental distress. Many elderly people will find it increasingly difficult to travel to polling stations by car because they have been encouraged by authorities to give up their driver’s licenses for safety reasons.
Therefore, municipal governments need to implement measures to prevent the drop in the number of polling stations from inconveniencing voters.
One such measure is to secure means of transportation for voters. The Takko Municipal Government in the northern Japan prefecture of Aomori transports elderly and physically disabled voters to polling stations by taxi free of charge for them to cast their ballots in early voting. A growing number of municipal governments transport voters to polling stations by bus.
The Hamada Municipal Government in Shimane Prefecture, western Japan, began in the previous upper house election in 2016 to make the rounds in mountainous and other depopulated areas to accept early voting. A growing number of local bodies have since introduced a similar system. It is an effective way to boost the convenience of voters.
It is also a good idea to establish common polling stations in the central part of a municipality and other easily accessible areas, where any registered voter in the municipality can cast their ballot.
The Aomori Prefecture city of Tsugaru designated all of its polling stations as common polling stations in return for reducing their number to about one-third from around 50. Many local bodies are hesitant to set up common polling stations for fear that the same voters could cast their ballots twice, but they should proactively introduce such a system.
The Internal Affairs and Communication Ministry is conducting research on the introduction of an online voting system for Japanese nationals living overseas. If realized, it will open the way for casting ballots at home, although there are many challenges to implementing such a system at an early stage.
The decrease of polling stations could adversely affect voters’ opportunities to cast their ballots in elections for public office. The central government should consider countermeasures from every angle to prevent the integration of polling stations from inconveniencing voters.