South Korea: How to run an election during a pandemic

South Korea's unexpected high voter turnout in parliamentary elections show how the November elections in the United States could be handled. The country has imposed sanitary safeguards, distancing, and temperature taking at the polls.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A man casts his vote for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, April 15, 2020. Long lines outside polling stations and record-high participation in early voting defied expectations of low turnout to minimize social contact.

Millions of South Koreans wore masks and disposable gloves as they voted in parliamentary elections Wednesday, the highest turnout in nearly three decades despite the coronavirus.

The government resisted calls to postpone the parliamentary elections billed as a midterm referendum on President Moon Jae-in, who enters the final two years of his single five-year term grappling with a historic public health crisis that is unleashing massive economic shock.

Exit polls conducted by TV stations indicated that Mr. Moon's Democratic Party and a satellite party it created to win proportional representative seats would comfortably combine for a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly.

While South Korea's electorate is deeply divided along ideological and generational lines and regional loyalties, recent surveys showed growing support for Mr. Moon and his liberal party, reflecting the public's approval of an aggressive test-and-quarantine program so far credited for lower fatality rates for the coronavirus compared to China, Europe, and North America.

The long lines that snaked around public offices and schools followed record-high participation in early voting held on Friday and Saturday, and defied expectations of a low turnout because of fears of contracting the virus.

In an initial count, the National Election Commission said more than 17.2 million people voted Wednesday. Combined with the 11.8 million who cast their ballots during early voting or by mail, the overall turnout was 66.2%, the highest since 71.9% turnout in a 1992 general election.

Analysts struggled to find explanations for the unexpectedly high turnout. Some simply gave up.

“Sorry, I really don’t have any theory for this,” said Yul Shin, a professor at Seoul’s Myongji University. “When turnouts are high, voters are usually trying to lay down judgment on a government that disappoints them. But the exit polls predict a crushing win for the ruling party.”

"We are going through difficult times, but the coronavirus and politics are two different things," said one voter, Lee Kum.

Another Seoul resident, Chung Eun-young, said she arrived at her polling station just after 6 a.m. to avoid crowds.

"I was worried about the coronavirus," she said. "They checked my temperature and handed me gloves, but it wasn't as bothersome as I thought it would be. ... I don't like what we are going through, but I cast my ballot to prevent the wrong candidates from getting elected."

The voting draws a contrast with an upended election cycle in the United States, where some states have pushed back presidential primaries or switched to voting by mail.

To hold the parliamentary elections as scheduled, South Korean officials and health authorities drew up a deliberate set of preventive measures to reduce risks of the virus being transmitted.

Duct tape or stickers marked 3 feet of social distancing space from nearby streets to ballot booths. Masked poll workers checked temperatures of arrivals and whisked anyone with a fever or not wearing a mask to separate areas to vote, sanitizing the facilities after they voted. Voters who passed the fever screening got sanitizing gel and disposable plastic gloves before entering booths.

The government also mapped out a voting process for those quarantined in their homes, a number that ballooned after the country began enforcing two-week quarantines on all arrivals from overseas on April 1.

Officials texted eligible voters in self-quarantine before the vote and about 13,000 affirmed they wanted to participate. Those without fever or respiratory symptoms were given permission to leave their homes from 5:20 p.m. to 7 p.m. so they could cast their ballots after 6 p.m., when polling stations close for other voters.

They were to be escorted or monitored through tracking apps and must maintain a 6-foot distance at polling places, while workers fully dressed in protective suits were to disinfect booths after each of them votes.

Hospitalized patients or those who were then under two-week quarantine were able to vote by mail if they had applied in late March. Around 400 of the mildly ill voted at temporary shelters during last week's early voting.

South Korea has confirmed more than 10,590 coronavirus cases, including 225 deaths, with the number of new infections decreasing in recent weeks. But there's concern about rising cases in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, and worries that crowds at parks and on mass transportation may be a sign of a relaxing of social distancing.

The National Assembly is elected every four years. Voters directly elect 253 district seats, while the remaining 47 go to proportional representatives.

While dozens of parties registered candidates, the elections were seen largely as a two-way race between Mr. Moon's ruling Democratic Party and the main conservative opposition United Future Party. Both registered satellite parties in a bid to win more proportional representative seats.

Just three years ago, mass protests ousted Mr. Moon's corrupt predecessor, but public displays of South Korea's dynamic democracy were muted this year by the virus. Candidates, wearing masks and gloves, avoided large rallies and handshakes. Things were more heated on the internet, which overflowed with bitter exchanges between supporters of Mr. Moon and his conservative opponents, who accuse the government of economic and foreign policy failures and botching the financial response to the epidemic.

Before the virus began absorbing public attention, Mr. Moon saw his support falter over a decaying job market, corruption scandals surrounding key political allies, and an ambitious but fragile diplomacy with rival North Korea that's falling apart.

Mr. Moon held three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, but the North in recent months severed virtually all cooperation with the South amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations with the United States. The North has also been dialing up weapons tests and fired a barrage of missiles into the sea on Tuesday.

A ruling party victory will likely embolden Mr. Moon to drive his key domestic and foreign policies, including resuming inter-Korean cooperation and inducing U.S.-North Korea talks, said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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