• Kyodo

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Voters in Niimi, Okayama Prefecture, will make Japanese history when they go to the polls June 23 and use electronic voting machines instead of writing the names of candidates on blank ballots.

In a fashion quite similar to withdrawing cash from an automatic teller machine, voters will look at a list of candidates appearing on a screen to elect a mayor and assembly members.

The machines are expected to reduce significantly the time needed to count votes and reduce the problem of questionable ballots.

Analysts say other local governments may follow Niimi’s lead if the method proves successful.

But municipalities will have to overcome a number of problems before they switch to electronic elections, especially the cost of the new system. Niimi will use rented machines.

The city will be the first in Japan to use the electronic voting machines. The move was made possible by a special law that took effect in February which allows municipalities to use such devices, though only for local elections.

Belgium, Brazil, Britain, France, the Netherlands and the United States are among the nations that have used electronic devices in elections, according to the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications.

In preparing for the elections, Niimi officials have been holding an electronic voting clinic to brief people on how to use the machines. About 8,000 of the city’s 20,000 eligible voters participated in lessons between early April and the end of May, officials said.

In addition, voting machines were installed in supermarkets on weekends for demonstration purposes while officials transported a machine around the city in a bid to urge residents to take part in simulated voting.

The city office has arranged to set up a small generator in each polling station in case of power failures. It also plans to hold a three-day study session for municipal officials to handle power outages and other technical problems.

An official of the city’s election administration committee said municipal officials will keep up the efforts until June 15, the day before the weeklong campaign begins, so that voters can come to the polls without any worries.

Committee officials are concerned about a wide gap in the vote-counting time involving written absentee ballots and the electronic ballots. They have determined vote counting for absentee ballots will take about two hours while that for electronic ballots will take about 20 minutes.

They initially planned to assign 30 officials to count absentee ballots, but decided later to nearly double the number to narrow the difference as much as possible.

The public management ministry says the city of Hiroshima and the municipality of Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture, are studying the possibility of adopting electronic voting. The Hiroshima mayor’s term is due to end next February and Shiroishi’s municipal assembly election is set for next April.

The ministry plans to set up a rental system in an effort to promote electronic voting, as many local governments are having second thoughts about using the machines due to the high costs involved.

“We’d like to help many municipalities introduce the machines” in unified local elections across the nation scheduled for next spring, an official said.

A senior ministry official said everything depends on the outcome in Niimi. If the election ends without a hitch, a growing number of cities, towns and villages will go for them. Otherwise, they will become more cautious.

The election administration committee of the city of Hiroshima will send 20 officials to observe the Niimi poll. They will study the practical aspects and observe voter reaction to the new system. Shiroishi and Eniwa in Hokkaido also plan to send observers.

The Niimi government has shifted the ballot counting hall from a room for about 150 people to a larger one with enough space to accommodate about 1,000 people in anticipation of many visitors from other municipalities.

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