The ruling Democratic Party is seeking to revise election laws to allow South Korean expatriates to vote by mail, upon growing calls from overseas Koreans who want that option.
Overseas Koreans with voting rights include those with permanent residency in other countries, students studying abroad and workers dispatched by Korean companies. The total number of eligible voters living abroad is about 2.14 million, or 4.5 percent of all voters.
Despite their significant numbers, overseas voters have had little impact on past elections due to low turnout. During the past four elections -- two presidential elections and two general elections -- the average expat turnout was as low as 5 percent.
Expats cite the low number of polling stations as one reason and are demanding a postal voting system.
In November last year, an association composed of Koreans living in the US, Australia, Japan, China and Brazil filed a petition on the Cheong Wa Dae website asking that they be allowed to vote by mail.
To exercise their right to vote, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, the petitioners said they have to drive, fly or take a train for hours to get to the nearest embassy or consulate.
Pointing to the example of the latest US presidential election, in which 65 million people were allowed to vote by mail, the petitioners called for the revision of the election laws.
In response, the ruling Democratic Party said early this month that it sought to deal with related bills at the regular National Assembly session that began Sept. 1.
Yun Ho-joong, floor leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, said at a parliamentary meeting Sept. 7, “Reports of expat voters and absenteeism will begin on Oct. 10 to prepare a list of presidential electors. The current law, which requires people to visit diplomatic offices and vote uniformly, limits their right to vote due to the pandemic.”
The introduction of a postal voting system is necessary to guarantee voters’ right to vote in practice, he said.
In the past, many expats voted for the progressive camp.
In the presidential election in 2017, 59.1 percent of expats voted in favor of Moon Jae-in. In the 2020 general election, the ruling party received 34.4 percent of expat votes and another progressive party, the Open Democratic Party, got 14.6 percent. The then-main opposition Future Korea Party gained 21.1 percent.
For postal voting to be possible in the 20th presidential election, the law must be revised by Oct. 10 at the latest.
However, the National Election Commission remains more conservative.
The NEC says the reliability of postal systems varies from country to country and that if postal voting is introduced, it should be allowed only in exceptional cases.
In May, it sent an opinion to the National Assembly, saying, “It is necessary to decide to allow postal voting only if voting is impossible at polling stations due to infectious diseases or natural disasters in the host country.”
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org