NATIONAL

[From the Scene] Koreans flock to early voting booths

By Ock Hyun-ju

Lack of voting booths causes frustration as number of advance voters surges

  • Published : May 4, 2017 - 15:32
  • Updated : May 18, 2017 - 10:55
INCHEON/ SEOUL -- As the two-day early voting kicked off Thursday, millions of South Koreans flocked to polling stations across the nation to elect their next president.

Instead of voting on the scheduled election day of Tuesday, many chose to cast ballots earlier as they have to work or have other plans, such as a trip to vacation hot spots.

People wait in line at Incheon International Airport on May 4, 2017, for early voting for the May 9 presidential election. (Yonhap)

When The Korea Herald visited airports, other transport hubs and local community centers on Thursday, the lines were long and the enthusiasm was palpable.

At Incheon Airport, Koreans lined up to vote on the third floor before travelling abroad for the three-day weekend that starts with Children’s Day on Friday.

Kim Ae-tti, 48, said she had left home early to vote at the airport as this year’s election was too important to miss out on.

“This year’s election is meaningful as it comes after we removed a corrupt leader from power,” said Kim, after taking a selfie with the polling booth in the background. “I hope the next president is honest and runs the country for us.”

A group of voters stop by the advance polling station at Incheon International Airport to cast their ballots after returning from trip abroad. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

The election was brought forward from its original schedule in December due to former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in March over a corruption scandal involving her and her inner circle. She is now on trial on a string of charges including bribery and abuse of authority.

“It is convenient to vote in advance, though it is a bit crowded. Now I can enjoy my trip to Vietnam light-hearted,” Choi Jeong-mok, a 28-year-old officer worker, said while waiting in line with his girlfriend.

Some 3,500 polling stations are open across the nation from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. It marks the first early voting for a presidential election after the system was introduced in 2013. Any Korean is eligible to vote as long as they have an identification card.

At Seoul Station, which is usually filled with passengers scurrying to catch trains, there were approximately 50 people in line at advance polling stations on the third floor.

“I stopped on my way to vote before heading off to my hometown Ulsan to visit my parents during the holidays,” said Jang Soo-geun, a 19-year-old medical student at a Seoul-based university, who reached voting age this year.

“I personally support the People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo because he seems to grasp the meaning of the fourth industrial revolution and vowed to support students majoring in science.”

People wait in line at Seoul Station on May 4, 2017, for early voting for the May 9 presidential election.(Yonhap)

Many office workers also carved out time from work to vote during their lunch break.

At Sogong-dong community center, which is located at the heart of Seoul’s busy office districts, the line outside the center stretched out a few blocks into the street.

“I came here to vote during lunch because I’m usually too wrapped up with my work,” said Park Ho-yong, a 37-year-old office worker who works in Gwanghwamun. “I’m planning to relax on the actual Election Day.”

The long line even made some people turn back.

“I think I’m going to come back later in the afternoon or tomorrow to vote,” said Ahn Ji-soo, a 29-year-old office worker.

There have been complaints over a lack of voting booths and locations. At airports in particular, many travelers waited nervously in long lines to vote before leaving the country.

An airport official Hong Seok-young said that the line stretched 90 meters and voters had to wait about 40 minutes if they arrived between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. earlier in the day.

“I saw some people who left without voting after checking the time. There was a 70-meter-long line even before the polling stations opened,” she said. “Many of the voters used a ‘fast track’ set aside for those who had less than 40 minutes left till their planes’ took off.”

“I wish there was another polling station on the ‘arrival’ floor for tourists’ convenience,” said Lee Ji-hye, 24, who arrived at the airport after a trip to Japan.

The National Election Commission said that it did not expect such a high turnout at early voting stations.

“We installed seven voting booths in the last general election at the airport. This time, we increased the number fivefold. We didn’t know there would be so many people (voting early) like this,” said an official from the NEC.

“We should review whether it is possible to add more polling stations, as we are only allowed to set up a limited number of booths in accordance with the election law."

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com) and Jung Min-kyung (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)

Staff reporter Bak Se-hwan contributed to this article.