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‘Voting an innate right granted to all citizens’

The right to vote is a constitutional right granted to all citizens regardless of their location, a senior official of the National Election Commission said.

“One does not have to perform taxpaying or military duties nor prove one’s qualification to exercise one’s constitutional rights,” said Jeong Hoon-gyo, director general of the NEC’s overseas election department.

“It is the role of the government and its affiliated organizations to come up with necessary measures to enable the practice of voting rights.”

The overseas voting system has emerged as a factor in next year’s general and presidential elections, as overseas Korean nationals will be able to cast their votes for the first time.

It has been a long road to this point.

In 1999, the Constitutional Court ruled that the election law was lawful in excluding overseas Koreans from elections. In 2007, however, the court overturned its own ruling by upholding petitioners’ claim that a law which offers no practical steps to realize voting rights for overseas Koreans is not in accord with the Constitution.

“The Constitutional Court’s ruling was a mere confirmation of a right which had always existed but in an inessential form,” Jeong said. 
Jeong Hoon-gyo, director general of the National Election Commission’s overseas election department, talks about preparations for overseas voting at his office in Seoul. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
Jeong Hoon-gyo, director general of the National Election Commission’s overseas election department, talks about preparations for overseas voting at his office in Seoul. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)

Upon the ruling, the National Assembly revised the related laws in 2009, officially granting voting rights to overseas residents with Korean nationality.

In the past, an absentee ballot system was temporarily allowed during the presidential and general elections from 1967-1971 but the corresponding clause was invalidated in 1972.

According to the new set of laws, voting rights are granted to overseas residents who maintain their Korean nationality and those temporarily absent from their registered address.

“Though some worry that the system may be premature, Korea is actually one of the last of the OECD states to introduce overseas voting,” said the director.

Even after 1999, when the Constitutional Court initially rejected the petitioners’ demand for an overseas voting system, the NEC submitted advisory opinion to the parliament, asking for a revision of related laws.

“Our initial plan was to limit voting rights to those who actually had a residential registration here,” Jeong said. “We feared that otherwise, multi-nationality holders and pro-North Korean figures may cause controversy.”

Despite such concerns, the Constitutional Court extended the vote to all those with Korean nationality.

The number of Korean nationals currently living overseas is 2.79 million, including 1.15 million permanent residence holders, according to the Foreign Ministry as of July.

Of them, anyone aged 19 and older may cast votes in the presidential and general elections. They are required to pre-register with local diplomatic offices during the given period.

Permanent residents, however, may elect only proportional representatives in general elections because they have no registered address in Korea so they cannot be assigned to a specific constituency.

“Political parties are paying keen attention to the overseas voters pool, whose size tops 2 million people in more than 150 locations all over the world,” Jeong said.

“Some speculate that the new system may go favorably for the conservative ruling party, but the voting results are quite unpredictable.”

In the old days, Korean immigrant communities abroad were politically conservative but these days, they are no longer different from voters in Korea due to the internet, he said.

He expressed concerns over possible intervention by overseas pro-North Korean groups in the election.

“Under the current law, a national may not be deprived of his or her voting rights based on political tendencies,” Jeong said.

“The government needs to come up with special measures to prevent them from influencing elections. It is a matter of national security.”

The commission has held two mock elections for overseas voters over the past year to detect problems in the overseas voting system.

“As pointed out during the parliamentary inspection last month, some of the overseas missions are not ready yet to manage the election,” said Jeong.

Most of the unprepared diplomatic offices are located in politically unstable countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya.

“These areas will join the list of constituencies as soon as the Foreign Ministry settles diplomatic offices there,” the NEC official said.

The commission now is focused on improving voting system in those areas with large population of overseas Koreans, such as the United States and China.

“For example, the consulate general in Chicago single-handedly manages votes from 13 neighboring states, whose combined area exceeds that of the Korean peninsula,” Jeong said, adding that voting booths must be added in order to cover the extensive area and the large population.

“When it comes to overseas voting, management flexibility is required to deal with various situations different from Korea.”

On Friday, the commission officially launched the overseas election control center which will keep open a 24-hour communication channel with all voting stations and voters.

“The center will be of a great help, especially to the 103 diplomatic offices where we will not be able to dispatch our officials,” said the director.

The NEC will promote overseas voting procedures through portal sites and local Korean newspapers intensively from Nov. 13 to Feb. 11 next year, during which overseas citizens are to register themselves as eligible voters.

Based on registered information, the NEC is to confirm the list of voters in March next year and take voting proceedings from March 28 to April 2.

“Elections, local or overseas, are always unpredictable and also controversial,” the director said. “It is our role to keep fairness and objectivity in the voting process.”

By Bae Hyun-jung (tellme@heraldcorp.com)
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