Early voting for June 1 local elections is held for two days from today. Both the ruling and opposition parties have begun to competitively encourage people to participate in a pre-poll voting by emphasizing that this is a tight contest. As the voter turnout tends to be lower than that of presidential elections or general elections, the election result is likely to be dependent on how many supporters cast their votes at the election.
Regardless of the election strategy employed by the ruling and opposition parties, low voting rates in local elections is worrisome indeed. Since 1995, when the first local elections took place with a voter turnout of 68.4%, voting rates in local elections have mostly stayed close to 50%. The voter turnout in the local elections recorded the second highest in 2018 with 60.2%, but still four out of 10 people did not show up for a vote.
The introduction of advance voting helped increase voting rates at local elections inch by inch. Since the 2014 local elections, when early voting was held for the first time for a national-level election, early voting numbers are surging and driving up the total turnout. In the March 9 presidential election, the early voting rate saw a record turnout of 36.9%, which is the highest early voting turnout in history. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, active participation in advance voting is encouraged for citizens to exercise their rights to vote.
This year’s local election is the eighth of the nation, and it is as important as presidential elections and general elections. In fact, the election result could have a more direct impact on people’s daily lives. Yet the importance of local elections has been often neglected; policies and views of each candidate were not sufficiently scrutinized, and voters were induced to vote in support of political parties instead of candidates.
As a result, we have seen a repeated number of cases where metropolitan and local government leaders have been implicated in corruption scandals and have resigned in disgrace. Candidates from a particular political party often dominates leadership and councils of local governments. There have been criticisms that incompetent leaders have exerted undue influence on local politics. An analysis by The Dong-A Ilbo shows that two out of five candidates in the upcoming local elections have criminal records including driving under influence, assault, and bribery.
The revival of local autonomy depends on voters’ active participation by comparing and examining competence of each candidate and political party. Low voting rate increases a likelihood that the election result is contingent on the mobilization of political parties. This could easily lead to distortion of popular will. The essence of grassroot democracy depends on raising awareness of local elections and increasing voting rates. Early voting is one of the most effective methods to this end. The National Election Council should also take every preventive measures to ensure integrity of elections and avoid adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the election like the lax one witnessed in the last presidential election.