It is no question that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is the biggest news story in circulation as it has altered the living habits of practically everyone around the world in one way or another. With many countries essentially shutting down in attempt to slow the spread of this virus which there is currently no vaccine for, people are having to adapt to a lifestyle of what many are calling “social distancing.” Although many schools and companies have been able to smoothly transition to functioning online, there are many facets of human activity for which we are unsure of how to complete while still taking precautionary measures to stay safe and slow the spread of the virus. Perhaps the big elephant in the room for many countries around the world is how to conduct upcoming elections as voting often involves gathering in large groups at the polls and requires resources and personnel. This past week, South Korea became the first country to hold national elections amidst the coronavirus pandemic for the 300 open parliamentary seats. South Korea has already been in the news as of lately due to the praise the nation received for its effective response to the pandemic. With their election process underway, it is important to look into the changes the country made to its voting process to see if other countries will look to follow the same strategy.
Instead of letting the pandemic do what writer Choe Sang-Hun describes as “disrupting political calendars,” South Korea proceeded with their Parliamentary elections as planned with the goal of providing its 44 million eligible voters with the ability to vote while still maintaining social distancing. In order to ensure peoples’ safety, South Korea has employed large numbers of public servants to disinfect the 14,000 polling sites. At each polling site, waiting lines are lined with markers every 3 feet for voters to stand to make sure people keep their distance. Furthermore, voters have their temperatures taken at the polls and those with temperatures that exceed 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit are sent home. On top of these efforts, voters had the option to go to certain polling sites on the Friday before the election which officially took place on Wednesday, April 15 to cast early ballots. This method of early voting was implemented as an attempt to reduce crowd sizes so keeping people distanced from one another at the polls was more manageable (New York Times).
For South Koreans who are infected with the coronavirus, South Korea provided patients with the option of mailing in their ballots between March 23 and March 28. For patients unable to vote by mail within the five-day time frame, eight voting stations operated by personnel in full body protection suits were set up. Candidates were encouraged by election authorities to wear masks and large campaign rallies that are typical in any democracy leading up to an election were not held. The mood was described as “somber” as the coronavirus was certainly on every voter’s and official’s mind during the voting process (New York Times). Voters were also required to wear masks as they arrived at the polls (Foreignpolicy.com).
Unsurprisingly, coronavirus became one of the prominent issues that voters focused on as opposed to the issues such as North Korea, the economy, and corruption which are generally the focus of South Korean elections (New York Times). To an extent, Wednesday’s election will serve as the public’s assessment of President Moon Jae’s government’s response to COVID-19. South Korea prohibits public opinion polls form being released during the week prior to an election so it is difficult to get a clear sense of how the public will respond to Moon and his government’s actions although Moon’s approval rating has risen significantly since the number of coronavirus cases originally began to rise in South Korea (Foreignpolicy.com). As more countries follow South Korea in holding elections (how they go about doing so is undetermined), more information will be gathered about how a government’s response to the pandemic influences vote choice. Furthermore, given that South Korea has received appraisal from world leaders and health organization for its success in dealing with COVID-19, it will be interesting to see if voters feel the same way.
South Korea’s persistence in holding elections as scheduled while simply adding a few safety modifications falls in line with the nation’s overall attitude towards the pandemic. South Korea has managed to deal with the spread of the virus without shutting down its cities and instead has relied heavily on large-scale testing and the promotion of social distancing. Just as it has not shut down its cities, it has not shut down its democracy.
South Korea can be an inspiration to other countries who are struggling to figure out how to manage their elections. Governments have an obligation to keep their citizens safe although as South Korea has shown, they also have an obligation to protect the suffrage of its people during times of crisis. Other countries have struggled to carry out elections during the pandemic. The United States, for example, has seen many states postpone their primary elections and those that have held them have faced criticism for shortcomings in maintaining voter safety. In Ohio, the governor postponed the primary election at the last minute despite a court ruling that declared that the election should not be postponed. In states that went through and held elections, there were reports of missing poll workers, unsanitary poll conditions, and low turnouts (propublica.org). It is clear that the United States has to figure out a solution and develop a plan for carrying out its elections. Most importantly, the United States, as well as other countries must address the elephant in the room: how will they hold upcoming national elections if they do not have the virus under control. Going forward, it is imperative that elections do not simply get postponed for significant periods of time for two main reasons. First, democracy cannot fold during a time like this. Crises like the coronavirus pandemic are when democracy is most needed because effective governments are needed to deal with disasters such as this. Second, in less developed countries, it can delegitimize governments if incumbents are to remain in power past their intended term lengths due to postponed elections.
Overall, South Korea will serve as a model to other countries not just for the way in which they were able to get the spread of COVID-19 under control, but in the way in which they were able to continue holding free and fair elections. It is hard to tie this to historical events, given that pandemics of this magnitude do not come often, although countries constantly change the format of elections and extend methods of voting to accommodate for a variety of circumstances and improve the protection and convenience of suffrage. Time will only tell if countries can effectively adapt to the new conditions and successfully hold free and fair elections during the coronavirus era.
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