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Many overseas voters sent mail ballot deemed 'non-voters' in 2021 Japan election

A set of ballots received by a Japanese woman living in London after the House of Representatives Oct. 31, 2021 election day is seen in this partially modified image. (Provided by the London resident)

OSAKA -- Ten percent of Japanese voters overseas who cast mail ballots for the October 2021 House of Representatives election were treated by election commissions across Japan as "non-voters," even though they sent in their votes, a Mainichi Shimbun investigation has found.

    Overseas voters' ballots did not arrive in time to be counted. This was due to international postal service delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and because the period between the dissolution of the lower house and polling day was so brief. There were also voters who received their ballot papers after election day, and so gave up on voting.

    International mail has also recently been affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and there are concerns that a similar situation may occur for the July 10 House of Councillors election. The problem calls into question the nature of voting rights and the right to participate in politics, and one expert has called for an immediate review of the overseas voting system.

    Japanese nationals living abroad need to be registered on the electoral roll to vote by mail, at diplomatic missions abroad, or in Japan, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. As of September 2021, there were 95,909 registered overseas voters.

    Those seeking to vote by post first send a form requesting ballot papers to the election commission of the local government they are registered with. Overseas voters must mail the ballots back once they receive them -- a laborious and time-consuming process. Public Offices Elections Act rules state that overseas voters can only post their ballot starting the day after an election is officially declared, and that in principle it must arrive by the time polling stations close on election day, typically at 8 p.m.

    The Mainichi Shimbun examined preliminary internal affairs ministry figures on the number of voters and the number of ballots issued for the 2021 lower house election. A total of 1,622 people chose to vote by mail. Of these, 888 had their vote tallied, and 159, or 9.8%, were marked as "non-voters" and treated as "abstentions" as their ballots did not arrive by the deadline. The remaining 575 people also did not vote for reasons unknown. In total, nearly half of all voters who sought to cast mail-in ballots did not have their votes counted.

    While the internal affairs ministry has issued figures for both constituency and proportional representation bloc votes, the current study used the constituency figures, as both types showed similar trends.

    For the 2021 lower house election, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida allotted just 17 days between the chamber's dissolution and polling day -- the shortest such period since the end of World War II. Meanwhile, decreased flight schedules and canceled flights due to the pandemic appear to have greatly impacted the delivery of ballots to and from voters living abroad.

    Multiple overseas voters told the Mainichi Shimbun that they got their ballots after election day, suggesting that many of the 575 people who had registered for a mail-in ballot but did not vote simply lost their right to cast a ballot.

    Tohoku University political science professor Kazunori Kawamura commented, "This risks violating the 'one person, one vote' principle, and it's the legislative branch's responsibility to review such systematic flaws. Voting by mail, which is easily influenced by pandemics and political unrest, should be swiftly replaced with online voting."

    (Japanese original by Yukina Furukawa, Osaka City News Department)

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