A revision to the Public Offices Election Law to expand opportunities for people to vote is before the Diet and expected to be enacted soon. Municipalities across the country, which are in charge of managing elections, should make full preparations to implement the reforms so that they can help encourage more people to participate in the political process, starting in the Upper House election this summer.
Such efforts are particularly important since the minimum voting age was lowered from 20 to 18 last year and about 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19 will join the ranks of eligible voters. Relevant authorities need to give much thought to devising measures to make it easier for people to vote, in accordance with the amendment.
The declines in voter turnout in recent national and local elections are alarming. The average turnout in single-seat constituencies in the Lower House election in 2014 hit a postwar low of 52.66 percent, while the turnout stood at 52.61 percent — the third-lowest on record since the end of the war — in the last Upper House race in 2013. Voting constitutes the backbone of democracy. A low voter turnout raises questions about the legitimacy of elected Diet and local assembly members as well as the prime minister, who is elected by the votes of Diet members.
The revision to the election law consists of three points. Previously one polling station was set up for voters in each district within a municipality — often at a local elementary school or municipal branch office. The revision will enable municipalities to open “common voting stations” for resident voters at venues where people routinely gather, such as shopping malls and railway stations, along with conventional voting stations in each of their districts. People can choose to vote at either one. Municipalities will decide where and how many common voting stations to set up. They need to take steps to prevent irregularities such as double voting and mistakes in vote counting.
The second point is extending the hours for early voting. Voters who are unable to vote on an election day are allowed to cast early ballots between 8:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. The revision will allow municipalities to move forward or back or both ways the hours by up to two hours to suit the convenience of local voters.
The third point is expanding the age range of children parents can take with them to polling stations. Currently only small children or those in unavoidable circumstances can enter polling stations with their parents. Under the revision, voters will be able to take children up to the age of 17 with them. The amendment is aimed at giving more children an opportunity to observe the voting process.
How much municipal governments will be able to expand voting opportunities will depend on their efforts and resources. Although a 1997 revision of the law extended the voting hours up to 8 p.m., about 35 percent of polling stations across the country closed before 8 p.m. in the 2014 general election. Municipalities will need to secure more manpower if they plan to set up additional voting stations and extend the hours for early voting. They may also need to link multiple voting stations online to prevent double voting. The national government should consider what help it can extend to municipalities that lack sufficient resources.
To help increase participation in voting, the Diet passed another revision to the Public Offices Election Law in January to make it easier for newly enfranchised youths to cast ballots. Previously people had to live in an area for at least three months before they could be locally registered as voters. This provision would have prevented tens of thousands of youths aged 18 and 19 who are moving from their hometowns to new places to go to schools or begin jobs this spring from voting in the coming Upper House election, which will likely be held in July. Now, however, those people who have just moved to new places can vote in their previous munipalities as long as they had lived there for longer than three months. In recent elections, voter turnout has been particularly low among younger people. This revision should hopefully encourage youths to take advantage of the measure to cast their first ballots in the upcoming election.
When the election law was amended last year to lower the minimum voting age to 18, the education ministry lifted a ban — in place since 1969 — on political and campaign activities by high school students under certain conditions. It has recently surfaced that all 59 public high schools in Ehime Prefecture have made it obligatory for students to notify school authorities in advance if they plan to take part in political activities outside the campus. The schools followed a model rule shown by the prefecture’s board of education, which said the advance notice is necessary for the schools to ensure the safety of their students — a rather dubious reason.
The requirement could discourage students from engaging in political activities, though the education board says it has no intention of finding out the students’ political opinions or limiting their activities. The education ministry takes the position that schools can institutionalize such rules if they are necessary and rational. But the ministry should stop allowing the introduction of such rules from the viewpoint of respecting the right of citizens to participate in political activities. This, in turn, will encourage more young people to vote.