Avoid voting age disparity

A revision to the law on referendums for amending the Constitution is likely to clear the Diet during the current session with joint support from the ruling coalition and several opposition parties.

While the revision completes the legal procedures for holding the popular vote needed to approve changes to the nation’s supreme law, the question of whether the minimum voting age for participating in referendums should be allowed to deviate from the legal age for adulthood as well as the minimum age for voting in other elections remains unsettled. It was one of the key issues left unresolved when the original law was enacted in 2007.

The 2007 law — enacted during Shinzo Abe’s previous stint as prime minister as the first step in his quest for changing the Constitution— sets the procedures for holding a national referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment, which must be initiated by at least two-thirds of the members in both houses of the Diet. A majority support in the referendum is required to ratify the amendment.

The original law set the minimum voting age in such a referendum at 18 but said the minimum age would continue to be 20 until other laws were also changed to lower the legal adulthood age and voting age in public elections to 18. It mandated that necessary additional legislative measures be taken before the referendum law takes effect.

However, no such measures were taken in time for implementing the law in 2010, leaving the issue of the voting age unresolved.

In fact, filling the holes in the referendum law was effectively taken off the political agenda after Abe’s exit from office in 2007 and as the Liberal Democratic Party fell from power in 2009. The issue was revived again after Abe and the LDP returned to power in late 2012.

When the referendum law was enacted seven years ago, its proponents said the voting age should be set at 18 in line with the trend in many other industrialized countries.

It was also advocated that the referendum should be made open to a wider segment of the population because the vote would deal with key issues that concern the nation’s future.

However, consensus remains elusive even today on lowering the voting age in the election of public offices and legal adulthood under the Civil Code to 18, with opposition strong especially among conservative ranks within the Liberal Democratic Party. Some of these lawmakers even oppose the idea of giving people aged 18 and 19 the right to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments.

In a compromise, the latest amendment deletes the provision in the original bill about adjusting the age-related provisions for elections and in other laws, and says the voting age in the referendum will be 20 until it is automatically lowered to 18 four years after the revised referendum law takes effect.

Separately the parties that endorsed the proposed amendment exchanged an accord saying that they will aim to take legislative action within two years to lower the voting age in both the referendum and public elections to 18.

However, there is no guarantee that discussions on lowering the minimum voting age in elections would proceed as envisioned in the accord.

Aside from the minimum voting age, there were several points that were discussed but left open when the referendum law was enacted in 2007.

In one, the LDP-New Komeito alliance agreed that organized campaigns by public servants (except for police officers and judges) to rally either for or against a constitutional amendment would be condoned for now — until additional legislative action is taken in the future to address the issue. The move was seen as an apparent overture to draw the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which has public-sector unions among its support base, into agreeing to the revision.

But the question of whether to set a minimum voter turnout to make a referendum vote effective — which was mentioned in a resolution adopted by the Upper House when the 2007 law was enacted as one of the issues to be discussed — has since never been addressed.

Back then, some experts said such a requirement is necessary to ensure that the Constitution would not be amended with approval by only a small portion of the electorate.

For example, a simple majority approval when 50 percent of the electorate cast votes in the referendum would mean the amendment was supported by only 25 percent of the voters. Others said introduction of such a requirement would allow opponents to an amendment to shoot it down by boycotting the referendum.

Either way, it is a key question concerning the basic mechanism of the referendum that still needs to be addressed.