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Last year, an election for the student council at Namiki Secondary School in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, drew national media attention. Outspoken candidates? Juicy campaign scandals? Not at all. The contest was, by all accounts, a decorous and incident-free affair.

Instead, the press found novelty in how the students voted: online, via smartphone.

Remote electronic voting for public office is forbidden in Japan, whose election law requires voters to cast ballots on paper, in person at supervised polling stations.

The teenage “digital natives” who participated in the student vote in Tsukuba were unfazed by its paperless nature. Yet many adult observers saw it as a big deal — and a sign of wider change to come.

“It’s our mission to test new ideas, so that they can be adopted nationally,” said Tsukuba’s mayor, Tatsuo Igarashi, whose administration supported Namiki Secondary School’s election experiment.

The voting software used at the school was developed by Votefor, a startup that uses blockchain and other advanced technologies to ensure privacy and guard against fraud. Votefor has been working with the city of Tsukuba since 2018, testing its platform in citizen polls that fall outside the scope of election laws, such as technology competitions sponsored by the city.

Igarashi hopes that internet voting will be used in Tsukuba’s next municipal election, in 2024. For that to happen, the city would need to secure a legal exemption from the central government — a hurdle that has ended many local policy experiments in the past, in Tsukuba and elsewhere.

“It’s easy enough to run pilot projects,” Igarashi said. “But when it comes to turning them into real, permanent programs, there’s always the obstacle of government regulation.”

Still, Igarashi is optimistic that this time will be different. In March, Tsukuba was named a Super City — a new designation that gives local governments more freedom to experiment with technology in areas such as health care, education, energy, crime prevention and transportation.

Tsukuba will still need to negotiate with Tokyo to implement policies that conflict with national rules, but being a Super City should give it more leverage to do so.

The Super City initiative was announced in 2020, during the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, as part of a broader government effort to promote technological innovation and to digitialize public services. The program got off to a slow start: As many as five municipalities were expected to be named Super Cities in the first round of selections this year, but in the end only two — Tsukuba and Osaka — made the cut.

Some critics argue that the government is being too picky, while others say the problem is a scarcity of suitable candidates. The panel of experts that examined candidate cities’ proposals sought both boldness and achievability — a combination that, in the panel’s view at least, remains rare among Japanese municipal planners.

That Tsukuba stood out from other candidates owes much to its history. The city has decades of experience as a government-sponsored technology hub. It is home to Tsukuba Science City, a planned science zone developed in the 1960s that has attracted dozens of research institutions, including Tsukuba University. The city’s population, now 250,000, is among the few in Japan that are growing. More than 10,000 of its residents are non-Japanese, a number that includes many students and researchers.

Tsukuba’s strengths mean the outcome of its Super City projects will be closely watched. If it proves unable to make real progress, what hope is there for other, less favored places?

Yuta Hirayama, an expert on smart cities who leads urban transformation projects at the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, said the city’s electronic voting initiative could have a significant social impact if adopted broadly.

“Internet voting could increase voter turnout among young people, help older people who have reduced access to transportation and ease the burden that running elections places on local governments,” he said.

Voting is just one area in which Tsukuba hopes to turn experiments into lasting change. The city wants to transform the way residents move around: Plans include expanded use of personal mobility devices like electric scooters and a network of shared taxis to take elderly people to hospital appointments, with routes determined by artificial intelligence and seamless digital check-ins and payment via terminals in the vehicle.

The city also wants to allow residents to link more personal information — including health records — to their MyNumber digital ID, on an opt-in basis. It is digitalizing many municipal services and administrative procedures with a smartphone app it promotes as a “miniature city hall.”

Many of the initiatives will require changes or exemptions to national rules, such as limits on the use of MyNumber IDs. Tsukuba’s initial Super City proposal called for negotiated changes to 40 regulations, though it has since pared the list down to the 28 that it deems most achievable.

At a recent public symposium on Tsukuba’s Super City plans, residents discussed their experiences with the city’s existing pilot projects and expressed their hopes for the future.

Weixin Lin, a student at Namiki Secondary School who voted in last year’s student council election, said she found the process quick and easy, although some of her fellow students were stymied by poor Wi-Fi and had to resort to paper ballots.

She added that she hoped the city’s online voting platform could be used for more than just elections. Why not use it to solicit residents’ opinions about policies, direct-democracy style?

“In elections you choose the candidate whose ideas you most agree with, but what people really care about is the policies,” she said. “We need tools that allow people of all ages to express their opinions.”

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Jonathan Soble

Quelle/Source: The Japan Times, 09.10.2022

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