How South Korea held national elections during the coronavirus pandemic

SEONGNAM, South Korea — On April 15, millions of people across South Korea donned face masks, rubber gloves, and hand sanitizer to cast their votes in a nationwide election.

Poll workers wore face protection, masks, and medical gloves. Upon arrival at the polling station, voters’ temperatures were taken, and anyone showing signs of fever was taken to a more secluded area of the building to cast their ballots. Separate polling stations were set up outside of hospitals for people infected with Covid-19 to vote.

The strict health and safety measures South Korea’s government put in place for election day could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the world — including the United States — on how to safely hold an election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In-person voting is a risky prospect right now, as public health experts warn that having large numbers of people gather in small, enclosed areas like polling places is one of the surest ways to spread the extremely contagious coronavirus.

This scenario played out in Wisconsin last week, when Republican lawmakers and the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court rejected the Democratic governor’s attempts to postpone the state’s scheduled elections or change voting rules to allow people to vote by mail.

Elections chief inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear on April 7.
Derek R. Henkle/AFP via Getty Images

Voting officers in Pangyo, South Korea, check a voter’s identity against the electoral register on April 15.
Jun Michael Park for Vox

The result was a political and public health nightmare: Wisconsin voters were forced to either stay home and forfeit their votes or violate the state’s stay-at-home measures and risk their health to cast their votes in person at their local polling places. Thousands chose the latter option.

With little time to prepare, poll workers scrambled to do whatever they could to minimize the risk of the virus spreading. Photos showed voters — many wearing masks, but some not — trying to maintain social distancing guidelines (remaining at least 6 feet apart) as best they could while standing in long lines waiting to vote, before being ushered into cramped schools, gyms, public libraries, and churches to cast their ballots.

The state’s public health officials have said it could be weeks before they know whether Wisconsin’s elections triggered a wider outbreak of the coronavirus, and some state party officials worry the chaos around the election has damaged its legitimacy in the eyes of many voters.

But as South Korea’s very different experience on Wednesday shows, things didn’t have to go that way.

South Korean voters had to go through extensive sanitization measures

As of election day, April 15, South Korea had nearly 10,600 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 220 deaths. The country saw its peak of Covid-19 cases on February 29, when it recorded more than 900 new cases. Now, a month and a half later, the number of new cases linger at around 30 a day — one of the quickest turnarounds for any country struggling with the virus.

Experts credit the drastic drop in numbers to a proactive government that has pushed aggressive preventive measures and consistent testing. The government bet on these same methods to safely hold the first national election by a country during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Entering the polling station was an extensive process. My polling station in Pangyo, Seongnam, was a community center within my apartment complex. There was a line out the door when I arrived at 10 am, which is when voters usually swarm to the polls.

Voters exercise social distancing while waiting to enter a polling station in Seoul.

As soon as I walked through the entrance, I had to stop at a “sanitizing station” where four officials stood armed with a thermometer that took my temperature when hovered above my forehead, several bottles of hand sanitizer, and boxes of disposable gloves.

Once they checked I had a mask on (I had brought one from home), they took my temperature to ensure that I showed no fever; those who had a temperature above 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit) were escorted to a separate polling booth in a secluded area before being sent for virus testing. They then squeezed hand sanitizer into my palms and gave me gloves to cover my clean hands.

Officials had already marked the floors ahead of time with stickers spaced one meter (3.28 feet) apart to ensure that voters were safely distanced while standing in line. Most people adhered to the stickers, and when a few inched up to the people in front of them out of impatience, the head supervisor of the poll instantly shooed them back into place.

The only time I took off my mask was when an official compared my face with my photo ID, which was required in the South Korean elections, and the entire process only lasted about 10 seconds.

As voters walk into the polling station, their temperature is checked.

Voters are asked to clean their hands using hand sanitizer and wear disposable gloves.

Catherine Kim walks into a polling station to cast her ballot.

A voter submits her ballot into a ballot box.

Once it was my turn, I walked into one of the four voting booths, lined up a few feet apart from the other voters, with two paper ballots in my hand. The stamp I used to mark my vote slipped a bit in my gloved hands, but the gloves were necessary since there weren’t sanitizer wipes available to wipe down any surfaces. The government said it would frequently sanitize polling stations, but the booth wasn’t disinfected before the next voter walked in after me.

Once I cast my ballot, I was ushered to a large pink trash bag taped to the wall, dedicated to the disposal of gloves. A poll worker pointed to the trash bag and then to my hands to indicate I needed to remove my gloves before leaving.

Despite the long line and multiple sanitization steps, I was in and out of the building in less than 10 minutes.

Used disposable gloves are collected in a garbage bag at a polling station in Pangyo.

Separate polling booths were set up outside of hospitals for Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms, and those in more severe conditions mailed in their ballots.

The largest group the government had to address was the nearly 60,000 people in quarantine; 22.8 percent of these people — a total of 13,642 — applied to vote and were given the option to leave their houses at 5:20 pm to arrive at their polling stations by 6 pm, after the rest of the population finished voting.

They had an hour to cast their ballots and return to their homes by 7 pm. BBC reported that they then had to call the government to announce their return home; failure to do so could lead to a visit from the police.

It’s an efficient system, but it’s not foolproof. There are still some risk factors that make experts like Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious diseases at Korea University Guro Hospital, wary.

Kim said it all depends on the cooperation of the quarantined people. If they fail to follow the rules, it could easily lead to another outbreak.

“I’m concerned that some people might finish voting before 7 pm and use their remaining time to wander, such as going shopping or visiting coffee shops,” he said. “They may think they’re harmless because they don’t seem sick, but we already know that asymptomatic people can transfer the virus.”

Ultimately, the success of this election won’t be tested until two weeks from now, once the incubation period of the virus is over. But if there isn’t a major surge in cases by then, the US could learn a few lessons on how to successfully hold elections, especially as November inches closer.

Most people seemed to feel comfortable voting because of the government’s effective response to the pandemic

The masks, hand sanitizer, and plastic gloves may have been an odd sight, but in many ways, election day felt like any other election: Families arrived in groups at polling stations, some brought their pets, and neighbors greeted each other at the entrance.

Kim Yu-jin, 36, who wheeled her child in a stroller as she voted with her husband, said she was happy with the way the elections were held.

“The government was perfectly prepared,” she said. “As a country, we’ve already been doing a good job at social distancing, and individuals have been proactively using masks and hand sanitizer. Everyone’s been trying to be as cautious as possible, which helped boost the government’s efforts to ensure a safe election.”

Seong Won-seok, 40, and Kim Yu-jin, 36, came to vote with their daughter.
Lee Kyeong-sook, 67.

Bu Kyeong-hee, 48, voted with her dog.

Bu Kyeong-hee, 48, said opening the polls as planned was not only the best way to ensure a smooth election but also the most logical step for a country that is slowly easing back into normal life. She added that other countries could learn from the aggressive measures taken by both the government and individuals to prevent infections and maintain social distancing while proceeding with crucial democratic events.

Hwang Sung-ha, 37, also thought it was appropriate for the government to push forward with the election because people could have a direct say in picking officials who would rebuild the country ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not everyone agrees, though: While Lee Kyeong-sook, 67, also said she was impressed by how the government handled the election, she said she had initially hoped for the government to postpone the event.

“My friends and I all agreed that we wished the government had delayed the election,” she said. “They’ve already been asking people my age to stay inside, so I wonder why they pushed for us to show up at the polls today.”

But ultimately, Lee — who cast her ballot along with more than 29 million others around the country — said she did so because it’s her duty as a citizen. Voting is a right that Koreans obtained only in 1948, which is why she considers it so important to voice her opinion through elections.

“We need to come together for the best of our country — especially during times like this,” she said.

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