Despite the risks of COVID-19, voters turn out at record numbers in South Korea national election

Voters waiting a line to get in the polling station in Seoul. (Jungwoo Ahn / Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON – South Korea held a national election on Wednesday during coronavirus pandemic and recorded its highest voter turnout in 28 years.

In South Korea, early voting for parliamentary election happened last Friday and Saturday.

The day of the election thousands braved the danger of catching coronavirus to fulfill their civic right to vote. Some went to the polling station as early as possible when polls opened at 6 a.m. Later in the day lines extended, with waiting times of 30 mins.

Yeonjee Choi, a 25-year-old living in Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, was a somewhat concerned about going to a polling station during the coronavirus outbreak.

Choi went to vote at 6 a.m. to minimize unnecessary contact with other people.

“I did early voting because of coronavirus,” said Choi. “Usually, fewer people do early voting compared to the actual election day. That’s why I did early voting to avoid crowds.”

South Korea held its national election while at least 50 countries and territories – including Italy, France, Russia, Canada and U.S. primary elections – across the globe postponed at least some voting due to COVID-19, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. While large public gatherings have been discouraged during the pandemic, the coronavirus did not to deter voters in South Korea.

The parliamentary election ended with the highest voter turnout – 66.2% – after 28 years, according to South Korea’s national election commission. About 27% of voters cast their ballots in advance to avoid crowds, the highest advance voting rate ever since it was introduced in 2013.

In the 2016 parliamentary election, total voter turnout was 58% and the early voting rate was 12%.

Precautions for the election were extensive. Government workers were required to disinfect polling station regularly, following special procedures:

  • -Voters were required to wear face masks.
  • -Temperature checks were required
  • -Before entering the polling place, each voter had a temperature check. Those who registered more than 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit), or others with COVID symptoms were moved to separate voting booths.
  • -Hand sanitizers were required along with plastic gloves.
  • -Social distancing of at least three feet was imposed.

Even with special instructions and efforts to disinfect and minimize the threat, voters were still thinking about the risk.

Choi said she was worried about coronavirus, but still felt a responsibility to vote.

“I still cast my ballot because it’s an important aspect of democracy,” she said. Choi also expprssed concern about her grandmother voting, who in her 80s, was vulnerable to the virus.

However, Su-Jeong Ko, 26, who voted in a small rural area of Changwon City, said she was not too worried about getting coronavirus since she thought that she would be safe following the government’s guidelines.

She waited almost 20 minutes to get into the polling station.

“It was my first time waiting this long time to vote for the early voting. This is unusual,” said Ko. “People look a little bit excited to come out of their house for a vote.”

Voters’ hands with their voting stamp on it. (Medill News Service)

“I’ve been watching the news and seeing posts on social media how voting procedures will look like,” Ko said. “I was not too worried about catching the virus as I knew that people who have any symptom of coronavirus would have a separate polling booth.”

President Moon Jae In’s ruling Democratic Party was projected to win big in the parliamentary elections. Even with ballots still being counted Wednesday night, his party had won 165 of 300 National Assembly seats in National Assembly, according to exit polling reported by KBS – South Korea’s public broadcasting company.

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