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Japan election

Aging Japan sacrifices voter turnout with polling station cuts

Data show disproportionate impact on regions with more older people

A decrease in the number of polling stations is a reason for lower voter turnout. 

TOKYO -- Poor voter turnout in Japan in recent elections has been blamed by analysts on political apathy among young people, but others say a fall in the number of polling stations has also had an impact.

Around 5.2 million fewer eligible citizens turned out to vote in the 2016 upper house election compared with a similar election in 2007. Polling stations in 2016 numbered 47,905, down by 3,837 from 2007.

The data show a correlation between a decrease in polling stations and reduced voter turnout, with a particular impact on regions that have higher proportions of people 65 and older. While election participation tends to be low in advanced economies, Japan confronts the challenge of sustaining democracy with a shrinking, graying population. 

The number of voting stations declined by more than 20% in Shimane, Tottori and Akita prefectures in 2016 from 2007. During the period, the rate of abstention increased 11 percentage points in Tottori, 10 in Shimane and 7 in Akita. In Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa, where there was no change in the number of voting stations, the abstention rate leveled off.

In Obira in Hokkaido, with a population of 3,000, the number of polling stations will be halved for the coming election from 2016 due to the need to cut costs. As a result, the nearest voting station for some will be more than 5 km away from their homes.

A decrease in the number of voting stations tends to discourage older votes from going to the polls due to the distance and inconvenience involved. This is particularly the case in underpopulated areas that tend to have higher populations of seniors. In Akita, Tokushima, Kochi and other prefectures with large elderly populations, the rate of voting abstention rose sharply.

In the 2016 election, 60.98% of voters aged 70 and above cast ballots, down 3.81 percentage points from 2007. The turnout of people aged 80 and above was 47.16%, much lower than the overall rate of 54.70%. A decrease in the number of voting stations directly affects people aged 80 and above.

Some local governments have begun to introduce mobile polling stations to correct this problem given Japan's aging population. But an official of the electoral management committee in Obira admitted that not every voter can be reached: "The area of our town is so large that we cannot visit all places."

Japan can take some lessons from India, the world's largest democracy. In its recent election, India created 1.03 million polling stations nationwide and introduced 4 million electronic voting machines.

In the 2018 midterm elections in the U.S., the Republican Party was criticized for attempting to discourage minority voters from going to the polls by taking measures such as relocating polling stations from areas that have large Hispanic populations.

Japan has 11.04 million people aged 80 years and older. That number is forecast to reach 16.29 million in 2035. With a "super-aging" population, Japan needs to figure out how to ensure its democracy serves everyone.

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