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Privacy not a big issue at Japan's voting centers

Unlike U.S. elections with their mechanized and curtained booths, in Japan it's all done by hand at rows of tables with only a hint of privacy. As a result, many a ballot was cast in Sunday's parliamentary elections after furtive glances at neighbors or the outright comparing of notes.

A young couple standing side-by-side at desks separated only by low partitions in one suburban polling center discussed the merits of each candidate in their district before agreeing on a mutually acceptable member of the opposition Socialist Party.

An elderly woman nearby filled in a ballot for her husband, who was cradling their grandson.

Voters outside gathered for one final look at photographs of the candidates on campaign posters. One housewife said she went to the center undecided but chose a Liberal Democrat after examining his poster.

"He looked the most respectable of the bunch," she said.

The election for the 512 seats in the powerful lower house of Japan's bicameral Parliament was seen as a crucial test of whether scandals and unpopular policies would end the Liberal Democrats' more than three decades of control.

More than 90-million people age 20 or older were eligible to vote, and officials said about 73 percent cast ballots. Those unable to pencil in their vote on the light green ballots were able to designate proxies to vote for them.

The counting of the votes began immediately after most centers closed at 6 p.m., and the first "assured winner" based on computer projections was declared just 90 minutes later on publicly supported television.

But difficulties were expected in counting the handwritten votes, which could be nullified for misspellings or unnecessary markings. And because voters have been known to write only the family name of their chosen candidate, problems also were expected in one district where three Satos were in the running and in another that had three Kogas.

In a separate ballot Sunday, a national referendum was held on the performance of eight of Japan's 15 Supreme Court judges. The eight took their seats after the last such poll, during elections for both houses of Parliament in 1986.

Spaces were provided for voters to mark if they thought any of the Cabinet-appointed justices should be removed.

The system was written into the constitution by U.S.-led occupation forces after World War II to provide a safeguard against unpopular appointees, but it has been criticized as ineffective.

No justice has resigned because of a poor rating, and critics say many voters do not know the backgrounds of the judges they are rating well enough to render a fair decision.

That charge was reflected by a young wife at a suburban polling center, who held out her ballot to her husband and asked: "Do you know any of these people?"