[Editorial] End blackout 

By Korea Herald

Ban on making public opinion surveys on candidates should be lifted

  • Published : May 5, 2017 - 16:56
  • Updated : May 5, 2017 - 16:56
With only three days to go to polling day, the presidential election is in its final stretch, and the candidates are pulling all their resources together to muster support behind their campaign.

Voters are also keen to exercise their right to choose the man who will lead the country for five years to come. The high turnout rate in the early voting period Thursday and Friday is a good indication that voters’ participation will be higher than in the past.

But voters casting ballots Tuesday will go to the polling booths without information that could be critical in determining their choices: the latest data from public opinion surveys on candidates’ popularities.

Under election law, making public the results of opinion polls is banned for the six days before the polling day. This time, the period began Wednesday and goes to 8 p.m., when polls close, Tuesday. This “blackout” period had been 22 days, but was shortened to six days in 2005.

Its raison d’etre was that the polling data reaching the general public could affect voters’ decisions, especially those of undecided voters. Some experts point to bandwagon and underdog effects.

But the times have changed and there are solid reasons the outdated restriction should be lifted.

Most of all, the ban discriminates against a majority of voters who should be the main players in elections. The election law allows candidates, parties, media and other organizations or individuals to continue to conduct public surveys on candidates.

That means only the general public is denied information about the latest developments and trends in the campaign, which would help them make their decisions.

For instance, until Tuesday, the time media could report data of opinion polls, the campaign of Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party had been catching up with Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, who had been second in the five-way race. But voters, due to the blackout, are denied information about whether Hong’s rising trend has continued or not.

Voters would also have no idea what impact the desertion of a dozen lawmakers from the Bareun Party -- whose candidate Yoo Seong-min had been trailing in fifth -- calling to unite the conservative bloc was having on the race.

The second problem is that the ban is liable to proliferate fake news and rumors, already a serious problem with modern elections. It is not rare for candidates and their campaigners -- and even ordinary supporters -- to spread polling data selectively or even distorted or false reports.

We have already witnessed -- through cases like the recent US presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK -- how heavily fake news and rumors can affect the outcome of a crucial vote.

The prevalence of the internet and social media adds to the gravity of the problem, and Korea, as one of the world’s most advanced countries in terms of the internet and mobile connections, is highly vulnerable to the problem.

Major democracies like the US, UK, Germany and Japan don’t have any restriction on making public opinion surveys. Some exceptions are Italy and France, where the blackout period is for the entire campaign period and two days, respectively.

For its part, Korea could learn a lesson from Canada. The country prohibited polling data from being made public for two days before the voting day until 1998. A newspaper company took the ban to the country‘s top court, which eventually ruled to repeal the restriction.

Anything related to election is difficult to change due to partisan interests, especially ahead of major elections. The next local elections are scheduled for 2018, therefore next year will be the best time for the National Assembly to revise the election law to lift the outdated ban.