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“Best disinfection measure is the best election management”- Association of World Election Bodies chief Choe Jonghyun


South Korea was among the first country to hold national election amid the outbreak of Covid19, where the country went on to record a record turnout with stringent measures implemented.

In a written interview with CitizenNews, Choe Jonghyun, the secretary-general of Association of World Election Bodies, shared the experience of holding the poll, where he likened South Korea's election body approached the preparation with menality of “the best disinfection measure is the best election management.” 

The following is the full Q&A with Mr. Choe.

Q1. South Korea is among the first countries that carried on with the general election despite the epidemic. Does the Korean experience suggest that election could still be carried on (including in-person voting) when risk is mitigated? What other lessons could other places learn from? And it seems the NEC never officially considered postponing the election, why is that?

Choe: The National Election Commission (NEC) of the Republic of Korea (ROK) managed the 21st National Assembly Election with the determination that “the best disinfection measure is the best election management.” The COVID-19 pandemic in South Korea peaked in early March with almost 900 daily new cases. It mitigated to the level of less than 100 daily new cases in April, and on April 15, the election day, the number of new cases was 27. The number of new cases dwindled to one digit number when the incubation period for the COVID-19 virus related to the election ended at the end of April. Based on this, the NEC and Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) concluded that the election did not affect the spread of the pandemic.

The National Assembly Election of April 15, 2020 in South Korea attracted the attention since it was the first national election in the world after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many countries with elections to be held have asked to share the experience of holding election in the midst of the pandemic since the turnout ratio was record high despite the risk of infection, and holding of the election didn’t influence the further spread of the COVID 19 virus. Through video conferences and webinars, the NEC has shared its experience with many election management authorities around the world about providing a safe environment for the voters so that they participate in the election.

According to Article 196 of the Public Official Election Act of the ROK, the authority to postpone the national elections is vested upon the President. Accordingly, the NEC is supposed to go ahead with any national election scheduled unless the President decides to postpone it. Though the Government was not so sure that the pandemic was under control, it seems that postponing the election was not considered as an option.

Disinfection measures in polling station in South Korea. Credit: National Election Commission 

Q2. How would you interpret the record high turnout in South Korea? In terms of public health risk mitigation in the South Korea election, are there any suspected or infected case related to election? Also, what is the percentage of voters that used alternative voting (early voting, or postal voting)?

The numbers of daily new cases of COVID-19 indicated that the COVID-19 seemed to be practically contained around the election day. Moreover, the meticulous disinfection measures implemented by the NEC convinced the voters that going to the polling station would be safe, which led to a high turnout. Right after the election, Antonio Spinelli of International IDEA , in his paper ‘Managing Elections under the COVID-19 Pandemic: the Republic of Korea’s Crucial Test’ commented that “Paradoxically, rather than keeping them away from the ballot boxes, the unprecedented situation ended up giving even more value to the exercise of their right to vote: they voted as a way to defeat, at least symbolically, the COVID-19 virus.”

According to the statistics of the NEC, of the 43,994,247 eligible voters, 11,742,677 voters (26.69%) voted at early voting stations; 100,529 voters, including 364 confirmed COVID-19 patients, applied for home voting; 446 COVID-19 patients and medical staff voted at special early voting stations in Care Centers; 3,640 quarantined voters voted on election day at the last moment of voting hours. In total, 29,126,396 voters participated in the election, which produced a turnout ratio of 66.2%.

Q3. Globally, have you observed a pattern of whether for elections to go ahead or not? Typically at which level could a country determine whether to go ahead with elections or not?

While statistics are not available, it seems that countries postponing the elections outnumber those going ahead. In France, the voter turnout in the first round of local elections was very low due to the fear of infection, which led to the postponement of the second round; in Germany, the low turnout in the first round of local elections led to the introduction of postal voting for the second round; in Poland the Parliament amended the election law to hold a presidential election through postal voting only, which would reduce contact among voters.

While the authority to postpone elections is usually prescribed in the constitution or election codes of each country, sometimes there is no provision on the postponement of elections and thus causing chaos. When the authority to postpone elections is not prescribed in the law, legislatures of some countries pass special bills that postpone elections; even when the authority to postpone elections is clearly defined in the law, some countries, instead of postponing the elections, had to hold elections due to another clause in the constitution that defines the start the term of office.

In April Junta Central Electoral (JCE, Central Electoral Council) of the Dominican Republic postponed presidential and parliamentary elections that were supposed to be held in May until July 5; the JCE could not continue postponing the election until the containment of the COVID-19 because the Constitution of the Republic prescribes that the term of offices of the president and the members of the parliament should start on August 16.

In the UK, the parliament passed a law that extended the term of office of incumbents of local government by one year, thus postponing the local elections for one year. 

Strict social distancing measures were again adopted in Hong Kong, where government has once banned dining-in but later U-turned. AP/file photo

Q4. Hong Kong has recently saw a resurgence of local coronavirus infections. The daily tally is about dozens to about a hundred. Taking aside politics or legal constrain, is that a safe level where election can still be held?

I do not believe there is anyone who can set the level of pandemic that allows holding elections.

The COVID-19 was not contained in the Dominican Republic when the JCE held once-postponed presidential and parliamentary elections on July 5 when the number of daily new cases of COVID-19 was 1,241, and the number of cases continued to increase after the election day. In South Korea the number of daily new cases of COVID-19 was 27 on April 15, the election day, and the number of cases diminished to one digit number by the end of April. When social distancing rules were loosened in May, the number of daily new cases jumped to two digit numbers.

While I cannot tell whether or not the sanitary situation in Hong Kong is contained, enough to hold the upcoming Legislative Council election, I can tell with confidence that the successful holding of elections in the midst of the pandemic depends on the cooperation of the election management authority and the voters in implementing stringent disinfection measures.


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