Korea sees record early voting turnout, NEC faces polling backlash
The National Election Commission (NEC) said that 16,323,602 of the 44,197,692 total registered voters cast their ballots over the two-day advance voting period.
This surpassed the previous record early voting turnout of 26.69 percent for the general elections in April 15, 2020. Early voting was first implemented in 2014, and in the 2017 presidential election, the advance voting rate was 26.06 percent.
People with Covid-19 and those under quarantine were able to cast early ballots from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. However, they were greeted by confusion and long lines at polling stations, with actual voting having to close around four hours after the designated time.
At various polling stations, confirmed and suspected Covid-19 patients had to wait in line outdoors in the cold for up to two hours and were befuddled when their ballot papers were collected in unsealed plastic baskets, paper boxes and even shopping bags instead of official ballot boxes at some locations.
Some voters even raised accusations of possible electoral fraud because they had no idea if their ballots were properly cast.
Election authorities said they were following regulations of allowing only one ballot box at the polling station. On-site election staffers transferred the sealed envelopes to the ballot box in an attempt to keep Covid-19 patients separate from other voters.
But some voters called this a violation of their right to secret balloting. At one site, voters were given ballot papers that had been tampered with, leading to further delays in voting.
The NEC on Sunday issued a statement apologizing for "any inconveniences" caused in early voting for Covid-19 patients and quarantined people the previous day, addressing the allegation of poor management.
But it also stressed that the polling method was conducted "in accordance with the laws and regulations," dismissing accusations of electoral fraud.
According to Article 151 of the Public Official Election Act, "two ballot boxes shall not be used at the same time at each voting district."
The NEC said that the same method was used for confirmed and suspected Covid-19 voters in the 2020 general election and April 7 by-elections last year, but admitted that this time around, "there was insufficient early voting management for registered voters due to the high participation rate."
Considering this presidential election is likely to be one of the closest to date, those casting ballots are anxious that their votes are accounted for, and the early voting controversy could become another hurdle in the final election results.
Both the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) called out the NEC for its handling of early voting.
PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok said Sunday, "The NEC should make an immediate statement on the whereabouts of the person who will take full responsibility for the situation."
While lambasting the NEC for its mismanagement of early voting, the PPP's campaign chief Kwon Young-se however drew the line at the allegations of possible election fraud and said that "the facts must be confirmed first."
DP chief Song Young-gil said Sunday at his party's headquarters in western Seoul that the accusations of the poor handling of the early voting process "can't be ignored" and demanded "strict disciplinary action against those in charge, along with an apology from the NEC."
He said there needs to be "accountability on this issue even after the election is over," and called for the prevention of same mistake happening on the actual election day.
On Sunday, a civic group filed a complaint with the Supreme Prosecutors' Office against NEC Chairperson Noh Jeong-hee, accusing her of abuse of power and violating the Public Official Election Act over the early voting mismanagement controversy.
In turn, health authorities said they will work on supplementary measures to address the complaints raised over polling procedures for Covid-19 patients ahead of Wednesday.
The high number of early voters signals a high overall turnout as well. The overall turnout for the 2017 presidential election was 77.2 percent, while last year's general election was 66.2 percent.
By region, South Jeolla had the highest early voting turnout at 51.45 percent, followed by North Jeolla at 48.63 percent and Gwangju at 48.27 percent.
Seoul, Sejong, North Gyeongsang and Gangwon also recorded higher turnout rates than the national average, while Busan, Ulsan, Gyeonggi, the Gyeongsang provinces and Daegu had slightly lower turnout.
The DP's presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung cast his early ballot near Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, and the PPP's candidate Yoon Suk-yeol voted in Nam District, Busan, on Friday.
Yoon while campaigning in Icheon, Gyeonggi and Seoul, was joined by Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party over the weekend. Ahn withdrew from the presidential race Thursday to support Yoon in a last-minute alliance.
Lee, Yoon and Sim Sang-jeung of the progressive Justice Party focused on campaign rallies in Seoul Sunday, the last weekend before the election.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]