The June 4 local elections are different from previous ones in several respects. One of them concerns the voting system. Previously, voters who could not go to the polls on election day had to apply for absentee ballots in advance.
Now Korea’s advanced IT infrastructure allows these people to cast their ballots during the advance voting period without requesting absentee ballots beforehand. All they need to do is visit the nearest advance voting station, bringing their ID cards.
If voters don’t know where the nearest polling station is located, they can get the information by accessing the website of the National Election Commission online or via their mobile phones.
The commission claims that it has built the world’s most convenient advanced voting system based on Korea’s IT expertise. At the heart of the new system is an integrated voting register listing the nation’s entire electorate.
Previously, voting registers were created on a district basis. Every time elections were held, each electoral district created its own voter list. The commission has integrated all the district lists by connecting their computer systems.
The integrated register is accessible from any advance polling station around the country, making it possible for voters to exercise their voting right regardless of where they are ― as long as they have their ID cards with them.
The commission says Korea is the first country to develop an advance poll system that has overcome spatial constraints.
The convenient system was put in place last year. It was applied for the first time to a parliamentary by-election held in April 2013. But voter turnout was low at the time at a mere 4.7 percent, probably because the system was not widely known to voters.
A wholly different story unfolded this year. From May 30-31, voters were allowed to cast their ballots in advance for the June 4 local elections. More than 4.74 million voters went to the polls during the two-day early voting period, marking a voter turnout of 11.5 percent. It was the first time that advance voting was applied to a nationwide election.
The voter turnout was large enough to serve as a variable in the Wednesday elections. The figure led the NEC to forecast that the final voter turnout would surpass the 60 percent mark for the first time in almost two decades.
Voter turnout in local elections has remained in the 50 percent range since it posted 68.4 percent in 1995 when the local autonomy system was revived after decades of suspension.
The large voter turnout is a strong justification for the advance voting system. It suggests that many voters would not have been able to cast their ballots had there been no such system.
Many advanced countries have already embraced advance voting. For instance, Sweden introduced it in 1942. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, 33 percent of the electorate voted ahead of the polling day.
And the advance voting periods in these countries are much longer than Korea’s: 18 days in Sweden, 14 days in many states of the United States and 10-15 days in Japan.
The voter turnout during the two-day advance polls suggests the need to extend it to the extent that it does not make election management too complicated.
However, what the NEC needs to do now is analyze how the new voting arrangement has changed voters’ behavior. The analysis will show whether it is necessary to adjust the present system.