Photo/IllutrationKoka Mayor Hiroki Iwanaga, left, and Hitoshi Matsuyama, who heads the city election administration commission, apologize Feb. 6 for the dishonest actions of officials counting ballots for the Lower House election last October. (Masamichi Naka)

KOKA, Shiga Prefecture--A ballot box containing hundreds of valid votes went missing during vote counting here for the Lower House election last October, but municipal officials chose to cover up the matter rather than announce a delay in the outcome.

The wrongdoing did not stop there, however.

When the unopened ballot box was later discovered, a senior administrator took it upon himself to incinerate the contents.

Prefectural police are investigating the apparent breach of the Public Offices Election Law in light of a Feb. 5 disclosure by the Shiga prefectural election administration commission that such trickery occurred in the Shiga No. 4 constituency. A whistle-blower revealed the matter to Koka Mayor Hiroki Iwanaga on Feb. 1, the commission said.

Administrators apparently panicked when they realized that the ballots counted did not match the number of voters who came to the voting stations.

Three senior officials in the city government's general affairs department decided their best recourse was to treat the missing ballots as blank votes and keep quiet.

But the missing ballot box later turned up. Rather than be found out, one of the three officials eventually dumped the container in an incinerator, destroying the evidence, according to a source.

The burned ballots would not have made any difference to the outcome in the constituency, a commission official said.

Shiga prefectural police are now questioning the trio about the suspected breach of the Public Offices Election Law.

City authorities said the vote counting was held at a community center in the Konan district on the evening of Oct. 22.

The total number of ballots counted did not tally with the number of people who voted, 47,851. It was off by several hundred voting slips.

Efforts to find the missing sealed ballot box proved fruitless.

At that point, the 57-year-old department chief who served as head of the election administration commission secretariat consulted with his two subordinates about what to do. That triggered the decision to inflate the number of blank votes.

According to police and city officials, 10 or so staff members cleaned up in the facility after the vote counting finished.

During the process, the department head and others were informed by the staff members that the missing ballot box had been located.

A 55-year-old section chief in the general affairs department took the uncounted votes home and burned them in an incinerator on Nov. 30.

Police suspect that more than one of the staff members, in addition to the three executives, must have realized that they had overstepped the boundary of what is legal.

(This article was written by Tomoe Ishikawa and Koichi Fujimaki.)