All countries facing elections in the year 2020 are struggling to maintain election normalcy amidst such vast uncertainties caused by COVID-19. Many countries, such as the United States or Burkina Faso will not have to make difficult decisions regarding elections until closer to November, ideally at the tail end of this global pandemic. However, not all countries are so lucky timing wise with their 2020 elections. These countries that are making choices impacting their elections in the window of winter through summer 2020 are setting the precedent for other nations, despite the fact that there is no rule book for a scenario such as this. Yet, each choice that governments make about elections will impact outcomes, turnout, and the future of elections.
In order to discuss South Korea’s response to elections during the COVID-19 crisis, it is first important to acknowledge their praised management of the COVID-19 spread itself. South Korea stood out as a country vastly impacted by COVID cases with about 10,000 cases, but also as one of the countries with the most rapid, productive responses. South Korea is using testing to ensure the slowest spread of the virus as possible, by testing those infected and those yet to be infected, they have created a productive system that has allowed them to avoid, “some of the strict lockdown strategies deployed elsewhere in the world” (Beaubien 2020). This impactful strategy allowed for elections to take place during this time of great uncertainty.
South Korean parliamentary elections were scheduled for and occured April 15, 2020. As is typical, on April 15th, the country elected all of its members of parliament, most (253) in a first- past-the-post system, and the rest (47) via proportional representation in closed party lists (Jaewon 2020). As there is an upcoming presidential election (March 2022), this election was an important determination of who potential presidential hopefuls could be (Bicker 2020). Additionally, the broadly positive interpretation of South Korea’s handling of COVID-19 caused many to assume support for the ruling party the Democratic Party and President Moon Jae-in (Bicker 2020).
As there have only been democratic free and fair elections in South Korea since 1988, it was of the utmost importance that no matter how these elections were held that they maintained freedom and fairness, despite the global pandemic situation (Gunia 2020). Being one of the first nations to hold elections in the middle of COVID-19, South Korea’s electoral process was bound to attract attention and act as an example, whether it be positive or negative for the rest of the world and their upcoming elections.
South Korea took a number of tactics to maintain safe and equitable elections during this time that have gained praise from the global community. While some nations are considering postponing, cancelling, or changing elections entirely, South Korea took a different approach, aiming to maintain some sense of normalcy in the voting process so that people could physically get out to vote. Yet, there was no shortage of precaution and safety taken in preparing for and conducting these 2020 elections. Voting sites transitioned to become iconic scenes of gathering with masks and large distancing practices implemented. Of course there was an option of early voting for those who preferred to avoid election day crowds. However, the fears of COVID-19 did not disillusion the population from casting their votes, in fact the turnout hit its highest percentage, 66% during this election (Bicker 2020). As has been the case with much of South Korea’s handling of this COVID crisis, there was surprising ease and structure for these elections. Yet, there was no shortage of masks and gloves. Each voter had their temperatures taken and adorned protective wear prior to entering polling stations (Bicker 2020). For those voters that were sick or tested positive for COVID-19, there were separate polling stations or options to mail in votes. Additionally, all voters stood at least 1 meter apart to divert any spread of germs at the polling station (Bicker 2020). Voting was specifically timed out in order to allow sufficient time to disinfect after each voting period. Furthermore, polling stations were strategically placed to benefit the largest number of voters as possible, particularly near hospital areas so sick voters would not have trouble voting (Bicker 2020).
The ruling Democratic Party of South Korea won a majority of votes according to recent results, something unsurprising amidst a well handled COVID crisis and election time (Lee and Kong 2020). While South Korea appeared to have successfully handled their elections during this time, their approach may not be accessible for every nation looking to follow in its path. Each nation has a varying budget for elections that may not allow for such intricate prevention methods that require large amounts of staff to assist. Additionally, the importance of physically voting may not be as prevalent in other nations. However, the most uncertain aspect of an election during COVID-19 is if the population is healthy enough to have voting in person at all. As many countries did not take such intense testing methods as South Korea, they may not be prepared to tackle an election at this time. This begs the question of what parts of South Korea’s COVID election protocol can other nations borrow, and what is impossible when transitioning to another electoral system, population, or nation?
Beaubien, Jason. “How South Korea Reined In The Outbreak Without Shutting Everything Down.” NPR, NPR, 26 Mar. 2020, www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/26/821688981/how-south-korea-reigned-in-the-outbreak-without-shutting-everything-down.
Bicker, Laura. “Coronavirus: South Korea Holds Elections in Masks and Clinics.” BBC News, BBC, 15 Apr. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52275993.
Gunia, Amy. “South Korean Elections: What U.S. Can Learn About Coronavirus Voter Protections.” Time, Time, 13 Apr. 2020, time.com/5818931/south-korea-elections-coronavirus/.
Jaewon, Kim. “Five Things to Know about South Korea’s General Election.” Nikkei Asian Review, Nikkei Asian Review, 10 Apr. 2020, asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/South-Korea-election/Five-things-to-know-about-South-Korea-s-general-election.
Lee, Jihye, and Kanga Kong. “South Korean Leader’s Party Wins Big in Election During Pandemic.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 14 Apr. 2020, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-14/south-korea-s-virus-election-may-provide-model-for-other-leaders.