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[Editorial] ‘Blind period’ in elections

Policymakers should tackle fairness issue with limited availability of election poll data

By Korea Herald

Published : April 9, 2024 - 05:31

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With a single day left to go to the general election, a record turnout in early voting is being interpreted in various ways by political parties as well as media outlets. Although the high participation rate of voters in elections is generally a positive development, there is an issue linked to early voting that policymakers and election authorities have to address for future elections: the lack of real-time information about voter trends.

There was no restriction in publicizing data about the two-day early voting, which wrapped up Saturday. The National Election Commission said the early turnout for April 10's election had reached 31.28 percent, up 4.59 percentage points from 26.69 percent recorded four years ago.

The new early voting turnout figure marked the highest seen for a general election. It is also meaningful that it surpassed the 30 percent mark for the first time since the country introduced the early voting system in 2014.

Given that early voting turnout for the presidential election last year was also a record 36.93 percent, a growing number of voters can be observed favoring early voting to avoid crowds or just enjoy a more flexible schedule on election day.

The major parties have put out conflicting interpretations of the turnout. Citing early voting figures, the ruling People Power Party claimed that “previously passive conservative voters turned out in droves to express their anger” against the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, argued that “people demonstrated their voting power” through early voting, reflecting their will to judge the Yoon Suk Yeol administration as soon as possible.

Perhaps more voters simply opted for the early voting system because it has become more reliable and hassle-free. As some political pundits contend, those who were less keen to go out to cast their votes might have changed their minds and gone to the polls anyway, spurred by the heated race resulting in more uncertainties.

One cautionary fact for voters as well as candidates is that higher early voting results do not necessarily translate into a similar trend on election day. For instance, in 2020, early voting turnout surged 14.4 percentage points from the previous election, but the total voter turnout stood at 66.2 percent, up just 8.2 percentage points.

Unsurprisingly, speculation abounds about what will happen Wednesday. As with previous elections, however, neither voters nor the political parties are sure about how the trends are shaping up in the last week before the election is held. The main reason is that election laws block opinion poll results from being publicized or quoted from six days before election day until the closing of the polls.

The regulation means that people have no way to know the latest voter trends due to the strict “blind period” requirement that started Thursday. Since media outlets are forced to quote only opinion polls that were released on or before April 3, voters have to go to the polling stations without knowledge of the latest shifts in public sentiment about specific candidates or parties.

The current election law behind the blind period is designed to minimize the possibility that political parties and candidates distort poll results just ahead of the election day. It is possible that desperate candidates might misuse real-time opinion poll results to sway voters.

But the blind period itself could be problematic.

Those who took part in early voting Friday and Saturday, for instance, were able to observe relatively new opinion polls, while those going to the polls Wednesday will have to choose their favorite candidates after being in the dark for six days -- an unfair gap in election information.

Given that some countries, including Japan, Sweden and the UK, do not have a blind period and the National Election Commission has been proposing a shorter blind period, policymakers should start discussing a revision of the related law once this election concludes.