South Korea saw an unprecedented turnout in early voting for the 20th presidential election, but immense discomfort and suspicions of electoral fraud arose with election watchdog's lack of preparation in running voting booths for COVID-19 patients.
During the two-day early voting period for the March 9 election, more than 16.3 million, or 36.93 percent, of 44.2 million eligible voters cast their ballots, according to the National Election Commission on Saturday. The highest turnout was in South Jeolla Province with 51.4 percent, with the lowest in Gyeonggi Province with 33.7 percent.
The record turnout topped the previous record of 26.69 percent seen for the early voting in the 2020 parliamentary elections, indicating a high level of interest in the election highlighted as a close competition between Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and his main rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party.
Yet the seemingly successful turnout was marred by election watchdog’s lackluster preparations on accommodating COVID-19 patients to cast their votes early, causing voting booths to run much longer than scheduled and causing immense trouble for huge number of voters across the country.
Voting had to close about four hours after the scheduled closing time of 6 p.m. Saturday as polling stations failed to assure swift and clear voting procedures for COVID-19 patients and those under self-quarantine who were designated an hourlong slot from 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday to cast their votes.
The election watchdog had announced on Feb. 25 that it would prepare separate waiting lines at polling stations for COVID-19 patients to minimize worries of infection and said it prepared methods for infected voters’ ballots to be collected transparently without worries.
But reality was far different from what the NEC promised, as many patients had to wait outside in cold for nearly two hours until they could cast their votes, and some reportedly fainted in the process. Some polling stations failed to separate COVID-19 patients from other voters, causing worries that people might become infected just by exercising their voting rights.
A significant number of voters also raised possible electoral fraud from finding their ballots collected in boxes or shopping bags instead of regular ballot boxes. No separate ballot boxes were prepared to collect the votes of COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine.
There was no uniform standard in what boxes could be used to collect the ballots of COVID-19 patients, and the election watchdog said it could not prepare additional official ballot boxes as it had to follow the law of having just one ballot box prepared at each polling station.
Officials at polling stations instead asked voters with COVID-19 and under quarantine orders to give the ballots to the officials at the scene, who were instructed to collect the ballots separately and later combine with the batch of ballots from non-patients.
"How can we call this a direct voting system if I can't even see my own ballot going into the ballot box?" questioned a COVID-19 patient in his 30s who cast his vote Saturday at a polling station in Seoul.
"How can I trust these officials to carry out transparent voting procedures if they don’t even have solid guidelines prepared for voters and collect ballots in leftover cardboard boxes?"
These voters argue that the procedure made for COVID-19 patients is in direct violation of the Public Official Election Act, which states an eligible voter "folds the ballot paper on the spot" and "then put it in the ballot box in the presence of the voting observers."
Accusations of electoral fraud also arose from three voters in Eunpyeong-gu, northwestern Seoul, reportedly finding ballots already marked as voting for Lee when receiving theirs at the voting scene. Local election officials said ballots of COVID-19 patients who already voted were mixed and given out as a "simple mistake."
A polling station in Incheon had to terminate early voting after facing immense backlash from voters at the scene, and many voters waiting to cast their ballots had to return home after engaging in fierce argument with NEC officials at the voting booth.
The NEC faced immense criticism from its lack of early voting preparations, sparking outcry from all parties, who called on it to take responsibility for inconveniencing voters and sparking worries of electoral fraud.
But NEC Secretary General Kim Se-hwan asserted in his meeting with People Power Party officials at 10 p.m. Saturday that early voting was held in accordance to regulations, arguing the election watchdog should be trusted to assure fair voting even though problems were apparent at the scene.
According to edited excerpts of the conversation Rep. Kim Woong of the main opposition party released on Facebook, the secretary general said some of the troubles were caused by voters “making a fuss,” emphasizing that everything happened at polling stations was done in accordance with the law.
"The People Power Party can explain whatever it finds from the situation," Kim Se-hwan said, according to the Facebook post. “We will give an explanation ourselves.”
The ruling Democratic Party also had some of its officials visit the NEC headquarters Sunday morning to demand improved measures to be brought on the official voting day. Voters should be provided with transparent, properly managed voting process however the situation may be, the party argues.
"This is the fault of the National Election Commission, without a doubt," Rep. Jo Seoung-lae, a senior spokesperson for the Democratic Party's presidential election campaign committee, told reporters Sunday.
"There shouldn't have been any anxiety coming from the election procedure. I am not convinced that there is election fraud, especially in this age, but the election commission should have been more careful in making directions so that no accusations like this are made from voters."
As criticism continued to rise, the election watchdog officially apologized for its mismanagement of the early voting process but emphasized that electoral fraud has not occurred and is not possible as the system is made in a way that assures clear monitoring from all party representatives.
"This election recorded the highest-ever early voting turnout, and we fell short of properly managing the early voting process due to lack of voting management personnel and lack of availability of polling stations," the NEC said in a statement released Sunday.
"The commission takes the matter seriously, and we will carefully examine the problems surfaced (during the early voting process) and come up with response measures so that the people can cast their votes without worries."
The election watchdog was scheduled to discuss additional response measures to be implemented on the voting day during a meeting with legislators held Sunday afternoon.
By Ko Jun-tae (email@example.com