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Separate voting booths and ballot boxes scrapped for COVID-19 patients

NEC responds to criticism on its lackluster early voting management for infected voters

Noh Jeong-hee, chairperson of the National Election Commission, holds an emergency meeting Monday at the election watchdog`s headquarters in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)
Noh Jeong-hee, chairperson of the National Election Commission, holds an emergency meeting Monday at the election watchdog`s headquarters in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)
COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine will be allowed to vote after 6 p.m. at the same voting booths and ballot boxes as other voters on Wednesday, the election watchdog said Monday, after facing criticism for its lackluster management of early voting booths and ballot boxes for infected voters over the weekend.

The National Election Commission said following an emergency internal meeting held Monday morning that COVID-19 patients and those under quarantine orders will be given between 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to cast their votes at nearby polling stations and use the same ballot boxes as non-patients.

Aside from a different time slot, COVID-19 patients will be following the same guidelines and undergo the same voting procedures as regular voters.

The announcement comes as a response to immense public outcry on poor election management during the early voting period, where many voting booths for both COVID-19 patients and regular voters had to run much longer than scheduled, and caused trouble for at least hundreds of voters across the country.

During the two-day early voting period that ended Saturday, COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine had to wait outside in the cold for long hours to cast their votes at separate voting booths installed outdoors, and saw their ballots mishandled due to confusion among officials at the scene.

Some voters also accused the election watchdog for possibly engaging in electoral fraud, as COVID-19 patients could not put their ballots inside official ballot boxes themselves. Instead, election officials were instructed to collect their ballots separately and later combine them with the batch from non-patients.

Early voting had to close hours after the scheduled closing time of 6 p.m. Saturday as polling stations failed to assure clear voting guidelines for COVID-19 patients and those under quarantine who were designated an hour-long slot from 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday to cast their votes.

A significant number of voters raised concerns of possible electoral fraud from finding their ballots collected in non-official ballot boxes or shopping bags instead of regular ballot boxes. No separate ballot boxes were prepared to collect the votes of COVID-19 patients.

Poor management of voting booths ended with some already used ballots revealed to voters who had not voted yet. Local election officials said ballots of COVID-19 patients who already voted were mixed and given out as a “simple mistake.”

The NEC faced huge uproar from officials of all parties, who called on it to take responsibility for causing inconvenience to voters and sparking worries of electoral fraud.

While the NEC rejected the suspicions of election rigging, leaders of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the main opposition People Power Party both called for penalization of key NEC officials in regards to the incident.

NEC Chairperson Noh Jeong-hee was also criticized for not reporting to work on Saturday when early voting was scheduled for COVID-19 patients, and calls have grown for Noh to resign from her position and assume responsibility for her mistakes.

Civic groups also filed complaints against key officials of the election watchdog including Noh for mishandling votes during early voting. The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is expected to start an investigation into the case after the election is finished.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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