Koreans abroad may not be able to vote for Assembly

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Koreans abroad may not be able to vote for Assembly

Koreans living abroad may not be able to vote in the April 15 general elections as Seoul’s Foreign Ministry advised the national election watchdog to suspend polling activities in some 20 countries badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Election Commission (NEC) planned to operate over 200 polling stations for overseas voters in 119 countries from April 1 to 6.

The NEC said Wednesday that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs determined that it would be difficult to carry out overseas voting in around 20 countries.

On Thursday evening, the NEC reached a decision to suspend polling activities in 17 countries through April 6. These countries are Italy, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Britain, France, South Africa, Ghana, Nepal, India, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and the United States.

More than 171,000 Koreans in 119 countries are eligible to vote in the April 15 general elections, according to the NEC. Ballots cast in polling stations around the world would be brought back to Korea through diplomatic pouches to ensure confidentiality.

But with the coronavirus becoming a global pandemic and countries going into lockdown mode, overseas voting is threatened.

The Foreign Ministry on Monday was briefed by chiefs of overseas missions on whether operating polling sites in their countries was feasible.

Election preparation activities were already suspended in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei Province, the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

Running polling station in countries under lockdowns in Europe, Southeast Asia, South America and Africa will also be difficult. This could include European countries suffering from large outbreaks such as Italy, Spain, France and Germany and even in major cities in the United States with sizeable overseas Korean populations like New York City and San Francisco.

Even countries that do not have widespread coronavirus infections have been closing borders, restricting movement in certain regions and ordering social distancing such as India and the Philippines. Some countries have delayed their own election exercises.

Overseas Koreans have been able to cast ballots since 2012.

Overseas citizens can register to vote online on the NEC website. Those who registered to vote in the preceding election can vote again without applying again. Registered overseas voters typically cast ballots at a polling station run by the nearest diplomatic mission, or an alternative facility such as Korea centers, during an allotted period ahead of the general election day.

A senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters Thursday, “The location and dates of the overseas polling stations were supposed to be announced today. We are being briefed [by overseas missions], and a final decision will be made by the NEC.”

The NEC said that based on the recommendations of the Foreign Ministry, it would make a decision on whether to suspend the polling sites in the affected countries.

However, the election watchdog has to also consider the voting rights of overseas citizens and is considering options such as reducing polling sites or dates for voting.

Even if ballots are cast at overseas polling sites without a hitch, getting them back to Korea in diplomatic pouches is a separate dilemma because of greatly reduced flights.

Diplomats say that one option being considered for places without direct flights to Seoul would be to gather the ballots at a hub and fly them out together.

With so many flights in the Middle East and Central and South America suspended, it is unclear if those overseas ballots would make it to Korea in time for vote counts on April 15. Another option would be do count the ballots on site, under the supervision of a local overseas voting commission.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was briefed on the status of preparations for overseas voting in North America during a video conference on coronavirus trends Wednesday with the Korean ambassadors to the United States and Canada, as well as heads of consulates in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

The highest number of registered overseas voters is in the United States at over 40,000, followed by Japan and China, both with around 20,000 voters. There are over 7.4 million overseas Koreans.

A Foreign Ministry official said Thursday, “In the overseas ballot process, it typically takes around five minutes per person to cast a ballot to check identification and ensure privacy. However, there will now be quarantine measures on top of this process.”

The NEC has been bolstering guidelines for the safety of voters on election day, including getting temperatures checked before entering polling stations and keeping over a one-meter (3.3-foot) distance between people.

Korean citizens who registered overseas can apply to vote in a different location, for example, in the case they have returned to Seoul, said a Foreign Ministry official.

Candidates on Thursday kicked off filing for candidacies for the April 15 elections Thursday.

Nearly 50 political parties have registered with the election commission, including satellites of the main and opposition parties competing for proportional representative seats. Of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, 47 are allocated to proportional lawmakers.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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