March 5 was the last day for early voting for COVID-19 confirmed patients and those in isolation, and voters saw great confusion at polls nationwide. Voters protested to poll workers who shoved ballots into garbage bags, baskets, and cardboard boxes instead of placing them in the ballot box. Some of the voters received pre-marked ballots. Some voters had to give up voting and returned home.
Such outcomes were caused by the lack of preparation by the National Election Commission. The presidential election is the third election to be held under COVID-19 after the 2020 general elections held and by-elections for the Seoul and Busan mayor on April 7 in 2021. At that time, daily confirmed cases were around 27 and 653, respectively. In January this year, experts predicted that more than 200K confirmed cases would be likely to take place prior to the election due to the Omicron variant.
Political circles voiced concerns that more thorough preparation would be needed to deal with the situation. The secretary general of the National Election Committee, who attended a National Assembly hearing last month, said confidently that they were well prepared for the worst case. We cannot help but ask what kind of preparation they had done all this time.
The National Election Commission argues that the public election laws state that two ballot boxes cannot be used at the same time in the same voting district. Even so, the circumstances could have been avoided if COVID-19 confirmed voters and non-confirmed voters were asked to vote at different times or if voting booths had been separately set up for COVID-19 confirmed voters. Such confusion could have been prevented if manuals had been distributed ahead on how to respond and training had been provided to the poll workers. Moreover, the state-run election authority did not even ask sign-up for early voting by infected voters and thus unable to tally how many had signed up for early voting. All of this shows how the commission failed to keep to the basic rules of election.
Political circles are demanding to investigate the case and hold accountability of the situation. The National Election Commission, however, keeps apologizing but says that there is no chance of fraud involved. The head of the commission did not even come to the office when the situation happened, and the statement issued by the organization was written in the commission’s name instead of the head of the commission. It is questionable whether the NEC is aware of how serious the situation is. Poor management in a tight election may cause voters to deny the results of the election. More stringent and meticulous preparation is needed for the upcoming voting day on March 9, when more COVID-19 confirmed voters will visit the polls, to prevent this situation from happening again.