COVID-19 and Elections: Learning from the South Korea experience

The world is looking at the successful conduct of the parliamentary election in South Korea as a case study in organizing elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), with the Asia Democracy Network (ADN), Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB), and the Korea Democracy Foundation co-organized on 12 June 2020 a webinar exploring the South Korea case and provided insights as to how other countries in Asia can learn from their experience.

Screenshot of the webinar. ANFREL Executive Director Chandanie Watawala moderated the webinar on elections during the pandemic.

Ms. Jinju Jo, Deputy Director for Training of A-WEB, said the National Election Commission of South Korea prepared strict measures to ensure that voters could cast their vote despite the looming threat of virus transmission.

She said two principles were considered in the handling of the elections in Korea: (1) ensure a safe voting environment and (2) protect the voting rights of those suffering from the virus and those under quarantine.

Among the measures taken were the extending of voting provisions for COVID-19 patients in medical facilities, dedicating specific time and polling stations for those under quarantine, and encouraging eligible voters to vote during the advance voting period (April 10-11) to reduce the number of people voting on election day. (See also: "COVID-19 and Elections: South Korea Legislative Election as Case Study")

During election day, polling stations were regularly disinfected, polling staff wore necessary protective gear, and guidelines to reduce direct person-to-person contact were in place, among others. (See also: "COVID-19 and Elections: The Experience of South Korea")

Precautionary measures at the polling station during the South Korea election as presented by Ms Jinju Jo of A-WEB.

While new cases of virus transmissions are currently being recorded, health authorities said that there have been no transmission from the conduct of the election due to the safety and health precautions in place.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the loss of lives and livelihoods of many people around the world. The responses of states to curb the further spread of the new coronavirus have also restricted many freedoms people normally enjoy including their right to vote with the postponement of scheduled elections.

ANFREL board member Damaso Magbual said the issue is how to maintain the right balance between addressing a health problem while upholding and protecting essential parts of democracy like election. He said South Korea showed the world how a dilemma such as the COVID-19 pandemic could be responded to.

In terms of postponing elections, Magbual said countries must be guided by norms and principles: they should be in keeping with legal framework; have broad support of election stakeholders; public must be informed of the reasons; must not be open ended; and must be guided by health experts.

In holding elections during the pandemic, Magbual said careful and elaborate planning and preparation must be done with guidance from health experts. He said planning must aim to achieve three things: (1) prevent and mitigate person-to-person interaction (during voter and candidate registration, campaign, and voting), (2) prevent the contamination of common objects by individuals who are infected, and (3) prevent individual’s exposure to contaminated objects.

Alternative methods, Magbual said, can be explored including online campaigning and specific election day procedures that would reduce person-to-person contact. He said voters must also be informed as to how the virus is transmitted, what precautions to take, and alternative election procedures available.

While it may not be possible to fully replicate what South Korea did to successfully conduct their election as there are factors like disparity in national wealth and economic development, Magbual said other countries can adopt lessons from the South Korea experience within their means and resources.

In Asia, among the countries scheduled to hold major elections this year amid the continuing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic are Sri Lanka in August, Hong Kong in September, and Myanmar in November. Health authorities in Sri Lanka have provided guidelines on the safe conduct of elections while the election commission is currently holding polling rehearsals to test safety guidelines.

WATCH the Webinar on Elections During the Pandemic here:


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