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Behind the Scenes at the House of Councilors Election: The Equipment and Volunteers Ensuring a Fair Contest

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With the shock of Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s assassination still lingering, the Liberal Democratic Party and Kōmeitō captured a majority of the contested seats in the July 10 upper house election, ensuring a firm hold on power for the ruling coalition. A former newspaper journalist and polling station worker writes about what it takes to keep an election running smoothly.

Elections as a Main Media Event

Election coverage is a major event for newspapers and TV news programs, as it pits them against one another in a competition for both speed and accuracy. Media outlets pour all their resources into covering the ballot count that determines which candidates are the winners. The Asahi Shimbun, the newspaper where I worked, had a saying: “Don’t get scooped by NHK.” In addition to journalists in the editorial division, employees in the advertising and sales departments who were not reporters were also pressed into service to assist in the all-night task of covering elections.

All this effort is spent in order to beat the election commissions in ascertaining vote tally data. It is people who make elections happen, both on the electoral management side and in the field of journalism—though it might be more accurate to describe it as sheer manual labor.

Japan’s elections are said to have entered the internet age. The ban on candidates using the internet and social media for the purpose of campaign activities was lifted in 2013, changing how politicians and parties communicated with voters, and the number of candidates taking to YouTube and Twitter has increased dramatically. Despite these shifts, though, vote counting is done as it always has been: by huge numbers of people. In the 2022 House of Councilors election, I got a first-hand sense of what this effort is like through my work as a temporary election worker.

I was stationed at a polling station and a ballot-counting center in two different cities in the western Kansai region. The position of temporary election worker is surprisingly popular. After an orientation provided by the job placement agency and a simple interview, I beat out two-to-one odds and was selected. The wage was ¥1,100 per hour for those working the day shift and ¥1,300 per hour for those on the night shift.

Into the Lion’s Den

Work at polling stations starts early in the morning. Mine was at a community center in a quiet residential area a 10-minute walk from a railway station. It was one of 55 stations in a city with approximately 1,400 registered voters. Seven workers, ranging in age from 40 to 70, showed up by the appointed time of 6:30 in the morning. Two of them were city employees, three including myself were temporary workers, and two were election observers.

The work we handled at the polling center was as follows. First, those in charge of the voter roster check the notification cards that residents bring to the polling station against the roster to confirm each voter’s identity. Once this is done, those in charge of distributing the ballots hand each voter a ballot on which they are to write in the candidate of their choice to represent their district. After voters place this slip in the collection box, they receive a ballot for the proportional representation vote, which they then fill out and cast. On average the process takes five minutes per voter. I was in charge of issuing electoral-district ballots.

We jumped straight into the lion’s den. At 7:00 in the morning the doors of the polling station were opened and an elderly man walked in with a spirited “Good morning!” From that point forward, it was an unbroken procession of voters. During the morning most of the voters were older men and elderly couples arriving together, but during the afternoon hours there seemed to be more women. From evening and into the night the voters were families with small children; these gradually gave way to younger men and women. What left the strongest impression on me was the fact that there were so few voters in their late teens and twenties. It made me wonder whether anyone in that age group lived in this district.

There was an astonishing amount of detailed manual labor that had to be done. For example, when reconciling the voter roster, the election worker is required to affix a stamp to both the roster and the election notification card presented by each and every voter. When issuing ballots, the worker uses a dial-type stamp to affix a number corresponding to the number on each ballot on the election notification cards. This was my job. However, partway through the process, the dial refused to advance, which nearly wreaked havoc on the entire operation. The other staff members felt sorry for me, and when I finally consulted the instruction manual for the stamp, I discovered that I had been incorrectly operating the button that advanced the number.

The city employee who was in charge kept nervously repeating to me that I shouldn’t issue different voters ballots with the same numbers and that I mustn’t let them take their ballots home with them. This was because there were two mistakes that had to be avoided at all costs, as they could jeopardize the election for the entire city: issuing the wrong ballots and incorrectly tallying the number of votes cast. Every few minutes all the election workers stopped to make sure there were no mistakes in the number of ballots and the number of voters. This went on all day and night.

Online Voting: A Long-Held Dream

One of the important tasks performed by polling station workers is safeguarding against the spread of COVID-19 infection. The guides at the polling station wear medical-grade rubber gloves, distribute masks to voters who forget to wear one, and every few hours carefully wipe down the voting tables with alcohol.

Once the number of voters started to trail off, the staff members began talking among themselves. The topic that came up was the somewhat simplistic question of “why don’t they hold elections online?” If voting were done via smartphones and computers, those with disabilities and the elderly could more easily cast their votes. Certainly it would be cheap, fast, and accurate. And there would be no need to hire temporary election workers. As we pressed on with our complicated manual labor, we started complaining.

“Technically, it’s feasible,” an older city employee responded to our question. “But it isn’t done because it would reveal who voted for which candidate.” Although I thought I could counter by suggesting that voters’ names could be kept private using encryption, I said nothing and decided to look into the matter later.

In 2018 the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications released a report by an advisory panel of experts on the matter of online voting. The first issue taken up was whether telecommunication systems could be relied upon. This concern makes sense in the light of the recent KDDI network failure. Other problems pointed out were the issues of accurately confirming voter eligibility and protecting the secrecy of ballots, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan. I discovered that the current system, in which it is impossible to identify who voted for which candidate once the ballots are inserted into the collection boxes, is based on this constitutional guarantee. The fact that I had never known this before was embarrassing. It turns out that Estonia is about the only country in the world that holds its national elections online. Online voting, it seems, is a long way off.

And so, after 13 hours the polls finally closed at 8:00 pm I then quickly bicycled the five kilometers to a ballot counting center in a different city. A total of approximately 200,000 votes had been cast in this city. The ballot counting center had been set up in a massive sports facility where a total of about 300 city employees and temporary workers had been assembled. It was on a totally different scale than the polling station where I had just been. We put our name tags with our various roles printed on them around our necks and got to work.

Types and Omissions

The work of opening and counting the votes was divided into two lines, one for the constituency ballots and one for the proportional representation ballots. Each line started near the entrance and stretched all the way across the room to the stage on the other side. The work was split into nearly 20 subdivisions, and the name of the subdivided task was on the name tag of each person doing it. There were “bundlers” who took the ballots from the opened boxes and arranged them in neat bundles; machine operators who sorted the ballots cast for each candidate; those in charge of unreadable ballots, who manually processed the votes that could not be read by machine; and content checkers looking for suspicious ballots. Most of this work was done by hand, and each person performed several tasks. Mine were opening ballot boxes, followed by bundling, and finally content checking.

At 9:30 pm the order was issued to begin opening ballots. The air conditioning was barely working and the hot, muggy air in the room was filled with the buzz of activity. Everyone bumped into each other as we began rushing around the venue.

The most difficult task was checking to make sure the voters had written the candidates’ names correctly. Although there were 10 high-speed ballot sorting machines equipped with a duplex scanning function, once the ballots were sorted by candidate names, large numbers of people started the manual checking work. I was in charge of checking a candidates’ name that contained a particular character. An astonishing number of people were unable to write this character correctly. While some mistaken characters at least made some sense, as they were similar in appearance or pronounced the same way, a large number of people seemed to just make up their own character in place of the actual character in the name. At 11:30 pm, after checking more than 5,000 ballots, the temporary election workers were done. The remaining tasks were to be completed by the team of city employees.

As I left the venue, I remember thinking that the experienced team of city employees would be able to process the ballots without any difficulty. The following day, however, I found out that I had been overly optimistic. After we had gone, there had been trouble with the proportional representation ballots, and partway through the automated counting process the city employees had to switch to manual counting. As a result, the announcement of the final result was delayed until 7:00 am Problems occurred in the city where I had worked during the day as well. The city employees had entered the wrong number of ballots cast, which meant the count was not finished until 6:30 in the morning. I imagine that many of the city employees who had worked all Sunday night were fighting drowsiness throughout the following Monday at work.

It may indeed take some time before reliable online and electronic voting become available, but is there really no way to reduce the enormous amount of manual labor involved in vote counting in the meantime? According to experts, very few countries in the world use the sort of system employed in Japan, in which voters write in the names of candidates and political parties themselves. Instead, most countries use ballots with these names printed on them, so that voters need only indicate their choices by marking the ballot.

This raises the question of why Japan does not adopt simple and speedy preprinted ballots. Perhaps one of the main reasons is that there are some members of the Japanese Diet who believe that if printed ballots were used some people would simply circle the name at the top, which would be unfair to the other candidates. I do not know if it has been confirmed that the order in which candidates’ names are printed on the ballot has any effect on people’s voting behavior.

And so, even in this modern age, Japanese democracy still requires election workers to spend all night opening and checking ballots. In the many despotic countries around the world, fair elections are not held, and as a result the people in those countries suffer under oppression. Given that Japanese democracy functions thanks to the efforts of election workers, is there really no way to lighten their burden? This is the question that rose from my experience.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Election workers confirm that a ballot box is empty prior to the start of voting in the 2022 House of Councilors election on July 10, 2022, in Shinjuku, Tokyo. © Jiji.)

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