Kim Hyun-kyu, 43, who lives in Rotorua, New Zealand, recently registered to vote in the upcoming presidential election in March. But he is still not sure whether he could vote on the day.
“To go to the polling station, I need to drive for three hours. When calculating the round trip, I’d need to take a day off. I will see whether I can do that during election day,” Kim said.
Kim said the three-hour drive is already a relatively short distance to a polling station there -- mostly diplomatic missions. “Many more live farther away and they give up voting. So only those who don’t need to earn money, like retired people, have a higher participation rate.”
Kim is one of 2.14 million overseas Koreans that account for nearly 5 percent of the nation’s total population. The sheer number can serve as a casting vote in a neck-and-neck race as it is now. But they usually do not get much attention from politicians because the actual turnout is meager.
For the upcoming presidential election, about 230,000 Korean citizens overseas are registered as absentee voters in 178 diplomatic offices worldwide. The overseas polls will be held for six days from Feb. 23 to 28 only for those registered in advance. Like Kim, some may not even end up being able to vote. In the 19th presidential election, 294,000 registered to vote and only 220,000 people showed up.
“The turnout cannot increase due to so few polling places and they are far away from most overseas Koreans’ residence,” said Lim Seong-ho, a political science professor at Kyung Hee University.
“If we introduce postal voting or online voting, the situation will be much better. Most countries with relatively high levels of democracy, such as the US, do so.”
About half of the 108 countries that hold overseas elections vote in person at diplomatic missions, as Korea does. The remaining 54 countries, including the UK, Germany and Japan, adopt alternatives such as postal voting or electronic voting. France has a proxy voting system that allows proxies to exercise one more vote on behalf of other voters.
Lawmakers in Korea are also reviewing alternatives, but it has not gotten much traction.
“In Korea, there is still a deep distrust of voters and there is also negative public opinion against immigrants exercising their right to vote. Politicians -- both the ruling and opposition parties -- also find it difficult to calculate political gains and losses so they seem to stick with the current situation, where the risk is relatively low,” Lim said.
A postal voting system, if implemented, will allow overseas Koreans to vote by mail.
The ruling Democratic Party has tried to revise the related law several times to permit postal voting, but failed due to resistance from the main opposition People Power Party. The opposition party says conditions are not enough to prevent problems, such as proxy voting, false reporting, and delays in delivery and loss.
Instead, the government has increased the number of overseas polling stations. This month, lawmakers voted to amend the Public Official Election Act to allow additional overseas voting stations to be installed in areas with more than 30,000 overseas Koreans.
The revision allows one additional polling station for every 30,000 people. For instance, two polling stations can be added in areas with 60,000 overseas citizens and three for areas with 90,000 people. A maximum of three voting stations can be added for each area.
Professor Ko Sun-gyu of Daegu University says that the perception of overseas residents’ right to vote needs to change first.
“Korea’s election system focuses only on domestic voters,” he said. “The overseas national election system, for its part, is designed for the convenience of those who manage the voting and politicians instead of voters.”
He referred to the system that electors should register in advance every time they vote or go to a distant polling station.
“Whether living in Korea or abroad, the right to vote is the basic suffrage of the people and this must be guaranteed,” he said.
By Shin Ji-hye (email@example.com