February 16, 2022
SEOUL – South Korea has changed the rules around voting to let people infected with COVID-19 cast their ballots in polling stations, as the omicron surge places record numbers of people under self-quarantine.
On the second day of advance voting, March 5, and on the day of the presidential election, March 9, eligible voters with active cases will be able to vote in person past the regular hours, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The National Assembly passed the exceptional measure into a bill on Monday.
As many as 1 million people could be under self-quarantine by the time of the election, according to a scenario where about 100,000 patients are diagnosed each day. This was the estimation by government modeler and COVID-19 adviser to the prime minister Dr. Jung Jae-hun. Per the guidance updated Feb. 9, patients must isolate for seven days from when the positive test is taken, regardless of their vaccination status.
In a joint address Tuesday, the ministries of health, interior safety and justice vowed to make “utmost efforts” to ensure that the upcoming election goes safely.
Han Sang-hie, a professor of constitutional studies at Kyung Hee University, said that the plan for voters confined at home was an “inadequate measure for protecting voting rights,“ and that it may amount to “a restriction on voters’ ability to exercise their rights.”
An hour and a half “may not be sufficient to ensure hundreds of thousands of people cast their vote in time,” he said.
Han proposed providing more options to expand voting access — such as pollsters in protective gear going door to door to distribute and collect ballots in cases of voters who are unable to leave confinement due to fear of stigma, their physical condition, or other reasons.
“The measure the Assembly has come up with seems to favor administrative convenience over accommodation of voting rights,” he said.
Another constitutional scholar, Chang Young-soo, agreed that the time allotted for voters in self-quarantine was insufficient, and that the measure to protect voting rights appeared weak.
“Whether it’s 1 million or 1.5 million people, there was enough time to get the infrastructure and the system ready to make sure that all of them would be able to vote. The election is not an unplanned, surprise event,” he said.
As for a possible consitutionality controversy, Chang said it was difficult to characterize the measure as being unconstitutional. “The aim of this revision is to allow patients to vote. The question is whether it’s able to adequately deliver that proposed aim,” he said.
Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University, said that letting COVID-19-positive voters vote in person was still a better alternative to mail-in ballots to avoid fraud, which had been the case in the 2020 US presidential election.
He added that considering the size of the outbreak, the separate, shorter hours for infected people “could affect voter turnout, which then may have a potential to influence election results to some degree.”
“This election looks like it’s going to be razor-thin. If more people in certain age cohorts are infected, then in theory that can have an impact, considering the stark generational differences in party preference,” he said.
Political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon said, “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate — it doesn’t sicken people based on their political orientation. But the trends of the outbreak are shifting. Now cases are rising among people in their 60s and older, who are more likely to vote conservative.”
He pointed out that restricting voting hours at all contradicts the idea of the government’s omicron response plan, which is that the threat of the disease would no longer pose constraints on daily activities. “The government has recently pushed to treat COVID-19 like the flu. Then during the election, moreso than any other occasion, people’s rights should not be restricted on account of health,” he said.
He also questioned the decision to shorten the hours initially proposed for the separate time slot — which spanned three hours from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. — to just half of that.
Physician-turned-lawyer Park Ho-kyun, who specializes in public health and medical laws, said that a diagnosis or health status should not stand in the way of casting a ballot. “In principle, people who are infected should be able to vote equally as people who aren’t,” he said.
“That being said, the government also has a duty to protect public health, and also the rights of voters who don’t have COVID-19 to vote safely with minimal risk of exposure. Once again, it’s about striking a balance between rights and safety.”
For safe voting, authorities recommend voters to wear respirators and face masks with higher levels of protection like the KF94 or KF80. Patients breaking confinement are also advised to travel on foot, in their own cars or special cabs rather than public transportation to avoid contact with others.
Jeong Eun-kyeong, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency commissioner, told a public broadcaster Monday evening that for safe voting, observing the basic rules — physical distancing, ventilating and masking — would remain imperative.