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Japanese citizens living overseas face high hurdles to vote

For Hiroko Hashitani, a Japanese citizen living in the U.S. state of Utah, casting a ballot for her home country’s election is no simple task.

A trek to her nearest polling station involves an hourlong flight and an Uber ride to a consulate in neighboring Colorado. To make the round trip, airline tickets alone can cost her upward of ¥13,000 ($120). Alternatively, driving to the consulate in Denver takes seven or eight hours each way.

“For those living overseas, voting for elections in Japan isn’t easy — the cost, time and mental energy it takes are just overwhelming,” said Hashitani, whose voting rights are registered with a municipality in western Japan where she last lived before leaving for the U.S. more than 20 years ago.

“No matter how many years I’ve lived in the U.S., it doesn’t change the fact that I still care deeply about Japan and that my identity is Japanese, so I feel a responsibility to vote,” she said.

Sunday’s general election in Japan underscored anew the plight of overseas voters, whose abilities to vote were compromised like never before by the pandemic and fledgling Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s election strategy. The extent to which they were inconvenienced, or in some cases, essentially disenfranchised, has reignited calls for a move toward allowing them to vote online from home, an undertaking that advocates say is long-overdue.

Tightest schedule ever

Hashitani says she had to give up on voting this time around.

Given the arduous trip to the consulate in Denver, the 43-year-old library specialist usually opts for an alternative — voting by mail. But this option, too, is far from perfect.

A voting booth for the Lower House election set up by the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Oct. 20. | KYODO
A voting booth for the Lower House election set up by the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Oct. 20. | KYODO

First, voters need to mail a written request for their ballots to their municipalities back home. Election management committees then send ballots to voters and then voters fill out ballots and send them back to the committees. Depending on how far away from Japan voters live, the whole process could take weeks.

For Hashitani, that process proved to be an issue ahead of Sunday’s poll.

Kishida, in an apparent bid to bring voters to the polls during his honeymoon period as prime minister, dissolved the Lower House just 17 days before the day of the election. By the time Hashitani realized the vote was going to take place Oct. 31, she was unable to get her mail-in ballot secured in time to take part.

As election timelines go, 17 days is the shortest lead-up to a vote in the country’s postwar history. This left Hashitani with only a visit to the Denver consulate as an option to vote, but she couldn’t find time to make the lengthy trip.

“In the U.S., you basically know well in advance when there’s going to be an election… but in Japan, they have a system where the Lower House is suddenly dissolved, so as an overseas voter, you’d have to constantly stay current on political developments at home — otherwise, it can be too late to request your ballot,” Hashitani said.

Typically, traveling to a nearby consulate or embassy is the most popular voting method for Japanese citizens living overseas. Citizens can also return to Japan to vote.

But due partly to disruptions to international flights to and from Japan caused by the pandemic, 15 Japanese consulates, including in Laos, Fiji and East Timor, had to give up on holding on-site voting altogether this year, according to the Foreign Ministry. The spread of COVID-19, coupled with the possibility of citywide lockdown, also prompted the ministry in the summer to urge overseas voters to consider voting by mail instead.

A man is given a ballot for the Lower House election at a voting booth set up at the Japanese Consulate General in Beijing on Oct. 20. | KYODO
A man is given a ballot for the Lower House election at a voting booth set up at the Japanese Consulate General in Beijing on Oct. 20. | KYODO

Caught off-guard

Some municipalities in Japan, however, were far less prepared to mail ballots to overseas voters this time around, with cities and towns not only blindsided by the extremely tight schedule set forth by Kishida, but also oblivious to another rare aspect of this election.

While the Lower House is usually dissolved in the middle of lawmakers’ four-year terms, this year it wasn’t until the 11th hour, just days before the expiration of members’ terms, that Kishida broke up the all-important chamber of the Diet.

Upon request from voters overseas, municipalities are obliged by law to start mailing ballots to them either when the Lower House is dissolved, or 60 days before lawmakers’ terms expire. This year, with the dissolution significantly delayed, the latter came first on Aug. 22. That schedule is such a rarity that some municipalities inadvertently saw that deadline come and go.

This led to them sending out ballots much later than Aug. 22, an oversight that risked robbing overseas voters of their chance to take part in the election.

Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward, for example, didn’t mail ballots to voters abroad until Oct. 18, partly because it was only paying attention to when the prime minister would call a snap election.

“That was how things always went,” said Masahiko Kinoshita, a Katsushika election management committee official.

A voting booth for the Lower House election set up at the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Oct. 20. | KYODO
A voting booth for the Lower House election set up at the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Oct. 20. | KYODO

On top of that, when the dissolution finally did happen, “it was all too sudden, and the election date was set much sooner than we had anticipated, so we ended up sending ballots to them at the last minute,” Kinoshita said. Despite that tight timeline, the official said that most voters who requested mail-in ballots were able to get their votes in before Sunday.

For Hiroyuki Takenaga, who co-heads the New York chapter of the Japanese Overseas Voters Network, the lapses by municipalities underlined the fragility of a system that voters abroad rely on, and reinforced his belief in the need for online voting.

Not only could similar mishaps by municipalities recur in future, but “people living in developing countries where the postal infrastructure is dysfunctional have long been resigned that they don’t even have the option of voting by mail,” said Takenaga. The often onerous task of on-site voting at consulates — which could involve hours of travel — is also “nonsense,” he said.

“I think online voting is the only way to go. It’s our only savior,” Takenaga said.

Voters cast ballots at an early polling location in the Minato Ward of Tokyo on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG
Voters cast ballots at an early polling location in the Minato Ward of Tokyo on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG

Restoring trust

Moves have been afoot in Japan to consider ushering in internet-based voting.

Last year, the internal affairs ministry conducted experiments in five municipalities to examine the viability of online voting, with participants using smartphones and My Number identification cards to simulate voting remotely.

Although the experiments themselves were largely a success, they don’t necessarily guarantee that real-life online voting would be immune to identity theft and other cybercrimes, said Wataru Nakaminami, an official from the internal affairs ministry’s election office.

“Changing the voting method would require legal revision and affect the foundation of our electoral system, so at the moment we don’t know yet when we’ll be able to implement the shift toward online voting,” Nakaminami said.

Other major challenges include how to prevent voting under duress. While conventional on-site voting involves surveillance by third-party observers to ensure there is no foul play, voting from home, for example, raises concerns some may be forced into casting ballots for a particular party.

A voter casts a ballot at an early polling location in the Minato Ward of Tokyo on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG
A voter casts a ballot at an early polling location in the Minato Ward of Tokyo on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG

Kazunori Kawamura, a Tohoku University associate professor of information science who studies electronic voting, also points out there is an ingrained distrust in Japan of technology-aided elections.

Legislation enacted in 2001 paved the way for local polls to be conducted with the assistance of electronic voting equipment, allowing voters to simply press touch panels, rather than write down names, at polling stations.

But the system backfired in 2003 during a mayoral election in the city of Kani, Gifu Prefecture, after an electronic voting machine malfunctioned, bringing the process to a halt and leaving many eligible voters unable to cast their ballots. Such was the disarray that the Supreme Court later declared the election invalid. The “Kani Shock,” as the incident came to be known, has perpetuated fears of voting tech in Japan, Kawamura said.

“Electronic voting is a system that once lost trust in Japan,” Kawamura said.

Remote, internet-based voting — a practice that is much more radical than simply using machines at polling sites — may be an even tougher sell.

The Tohoku University associate professor says overseas voters, who routinely rely on the internet to stay connected with their families and friends back home, would be a perfect fit for an online voting experiment. A successful trial run with overseas voters, Kawamura said, would be a first step toward winning more widespread support for online voting.

Many from this demographic are “people who desperately want to vote, but can’t,” Kawamura noted.

“Internet voting isn’t just about improving convenience and encouraging more young people to vote, but it’s also a human rights issue. It’s about enabling those who truly want to vote to vote.”

A voter casts a ballot at an early polling location in the Minato Ward of Tokyo on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG
A voter casts a ballot at an early polling location in the Minato Ward of Tokyo on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG

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