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Last municipality in Japan scraps electronic voting system

The touch panel screen of an electronic voting machine is seen in Rokunohe, Aomori Prefecture, on March 1, 2018. (Mainichi)

ROKUNOHE, Aomori -- The municipal government here has decided to scrap its electronic voting system, the only one of its kind in Japan, it has been learned.

    With the cost burden on the Rokunohe Municipal Government heavy and the spread of the system slow, the Tokyo-based electronic voting system promotion cooperative association composed of voting machine makers and sellers was unable to update the town's machines, leading to the decision to abandon the system. The town had planned to use electronic voting during the municipal assembly elections set for next spring, but now has decided to return to paper ballots.

    Electronic voting was introduced in Japan in 2002 through special legislation, but was still limited only to local elections. It was hoped that the machines would improve speed and accuracy in vote counting. However, in reality, it has made little traction, and with Rokunohe's decision, there is now not a single municipality in Japan making use of the system.

    Rokunohe first adopted the scheme soon after the prohibition was lifted in 2003, with the expectation that it would shorten work time and spread in the future. The machines made their first appearance the following year in the mayoral election. It took only 10 minutes for the electronic ballots to be counted, and after counting additional hand-written absentee ballots, the whole process was finished in 23 minutes.

    "There are no disputed ballots (due to writing mistakes), and the counting work finishes early," commented a supervisor from the town board of elections. Rokunohe used the machines for a total of six times, the last being the municipal assembly by-election in 2016.

    However, the cost to rent the machines is relatively high, and because the cost-benefit performance was rather low along with other issues, the voting system did not spread beyond Rokunohe. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, in addition to Rokunohe, only nine other municipalities, such as the city of Niimi in Okayama Prefecture, have made use of electronic voting, and only a total of 25 times nationwide.

    The Kyoto Municipal Government decided to scrap the system about three years ago because costs like the rental fee for the machines totaled some 36 million yen each time, while in the city of Kani in Gifu Prefecture, trouble arose with the machines and the election itself was invalidated.

    When the time came to update the machines, the electronic voting system promotion cooperative association refused to renew the system on the grounds that it was not profitable, and told the Rokunohe government at the end of last year that it would now be difficult to supply the machines. Currently, there are six local governments that have ordinances allowing for electronic voting, but as the promotion cooperative is the only organization that rents out the machines, it is now virtually impossible for any of the municipalities to use the system.

    There was hope that electronic voting would take hold if the prohibition of its use was lifted for elections on the national level, but a law seeking to do just that was struck down in 2008. The internal affairs ministry launched a research group to explore the practical possibilities of things like internet voting, and the group is expected to summarize their recommendations by this summer.

    "It's a shame we had to get rid of something that had taken root among residents," a representative from the Rokunohe election board said. "We'll consider it again if there are new efforts made (by the central government)."

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