Democracy, elections and pandemics: How South Korea ran parliamentary elections during the Covid-19 crisis

By Youngmi Kim (University of Edinburgh), GLOBALCIT collaborator.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic crisis of 2020 more than 47 countries, including France, New Zealand, Ethiopia and the UK postponed elections. The US, Singapore, and Hong Kong also have important electoral rounds scheduled for later this year and are carefully watching how those countries that do run them manage to do so safely for the voters while safeguarding individual rights and democratic procedures. At one point in February one of the worst affected countries globally as to the number of cases, how did South Korea manage to bring a country of over 51 million people to the polling stations on 15 April 2020 to renew its parliament? A range of health measures were in place, but election day (and the preceding days for early voting and voting abroad) ran smoothly. The Moon Jae-in administration secured a landslide victory turning popular criticism of its early handling of the crisis into a resounding expression of support.

The ‘Corona Elections’

South Korea held parliamentary elections on 15 April 2020. The ruling Democratic Party and its ally Party of Citizens won a landslide victory gaining 180 seats (out of 300), while the main opposition United Future Party-led coalition secured 103. Its super majority means that the ruling coalition can pass various major policies without facing strong hurdles in the National Assembly. The Democratic Party has won the fourth consecutive elections since 2016 and it is now also well positioned for the 2022 presidential elections.

Three main issues dominated the electoral campaign, as discussed in greater detail elsewhere  (The Diplomat and ISPI): the new electoral laws, the political parties’ electoral strategies to ensure their seats and the Corona pandemic crisis. The package of electoral law reforms introduced in 2019 introduced two main changes. First, the voting age has been lowered from 19 to 18 years, thereby expanding the electorate of over 500,000 including high school seniors, in response to enfranchise the youth. Second, the Moon administration, through its majority in parliament, introduced a new hybrid mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral law. Designed to overcome the dual dominant party system which has traditionally characterised South Korea’s democratic political landscape, the move was aimed at fostering the emergence of a true, not just formal, multi-party system. Furthermore, the new laws enhanced the representation of traditionally under-represented groups in Korean society and politics such as women, disabled, LGBT persons, and migrant workers. Although the laws were eventually passed, despite the opposition’s filibustering in parliament, in December 2019, some amendments introduced some distortion to the original spirit of the reform, allowing the dominant parties to set up satellite parties that would compete and gain seats in the blocked party list competition, thus making up for the loss in seats which the parties winning district seats would inevitably face compared with the original electoral system.

Third, and crucially, the electoral campaign was overshadowed by the Coronavirus pandemic. Like in many other countries, government and society were confronted with a public health crisis, alongside economic and social challenges. Apart from dealing with the former, ruling and opposition parties engaged in heated debates over the most suitable measures to limit the economic fallout of the pandemic for society and the economy.  While some of the issues that defined the campaign were specific to the Korean case, the way in which electoral rights were preserved and democratic elections were run can be instructive for ensuring that even a public health crisis of this magnitude does not derail the exercise of such rights.

The safeguarding of electoral rights: Voting during a pandemic

The size of the electorate had been expanded by the 2019 electoral reforms, which lowered voting age from 19 to 18 years. This means that in Korea high school students born before 16 April 2002 could exercise their voting rights, thereby significantly enfranchising the local youth.

The National Election Commission ran incessantly a nation-wide information campaign to provide guidelines for elections. All the polling stations were sanitised six hours before the start of voting. This included thorough cleaning of closed areas on the premises, such as toilets, elevators including the buttons, and door handles. Voters were asked to wash their hands before leaving home, and bring IDs and face masks as they went to the polling stations. Officers at the polling stations drew lines at one meter distance so that social distance could be maintained as people queued for their turn to show their IDs. Parents were advised not to bring their children along to the polling stations.

Upon entering the building voters had their temperature checked and those with a temperature of 37.5 degrees and above were guided by two electoral observers to vote at a different polling station in a wider, more open space, where the air was refreshed regularly. Next, voters were asked to clean their hands with the hand sanitising gel provided, wear plastic gloves and proceed to have their ID verified. Voters refusing to wear plastic gloves were allowed to wear their own textile ones. At that point they would collect their voting papers, head to the closed booth and then put their ballots into the box. Those voters for whom a higher temperature had been confirmed were then directed to a designated public clinic where they would be tested for coronavirus.

Other measures ensured that voting rights could be exercised despite the highly unusual situation. First, voters could vote at polling stations outside of their place of residence just by presenting their IDs. At the polling station a separate ballot paper would be printed reflecting the candidates and party lists of their original district. Secondly, early voting was extended so that the citizenry could vote early on 10-11 April 6am – 6pm. At 26.69% early voting was higher than in previous electoral rounds (12.19% in the 2016 parliamentary elections, 26.06% in the 2017 presidential elections and 20.14% in the 2018 local elections).

Like Singapore and China, among others, South Korea experienced a rise in infections in recent weeks as new cases were reported among citizens returning from abroad. Returning Korean citizens are asked to self-isolate for fourteen days; however, they were allowed to vote outside regular voting hours after 6pm. If they had registered to vote abroad (at Korean embassies and consulates), but had returned in the meantime they were allowed to vote as long as they reported this the day before elections.

Korea allows for remote voting, which takes the form of postal ballots, allowing voters who cannot visit – or do not wish to – the polling station to use postal ballots. This system has allowed people with disabilities, hospital patients or long-term sailors to vote (in the latter case ballots were first faxed and then posted). Those taking advantage of this option had to report to the local government office between 24-28 March, and the National Election Committee subsequently posted the ballots. Voters would then need to return these using prepaid envelopes in time to arrive before election day. This year voters could also cast their votes on 1-6 April. This part ran less smoothly due to the global pandemic crisis as in many countries polling stations could not be opened. This was the case in Wuhan and other cities in China, but also Italy, France, Spain, and Germany due to national lockdown policies. In principle, 205 polling stations were planned in 119 countries to cater for up to 171,959 voters outside South Korea. In practice, 65 designated polling stations in 40 – 45 countries could not be opened mostly in Europe and the US, and 80,500 voters abroad could not vote meaning that only 46.8% of those eligible could actually exercise their right to vote. Some voters travelled 5-6 hours to visit polling stations. In those cases the sanitary measures were the same as those in place in Korea. Face masks were provided to the voters in some countries. Distance between people was widened to two meters. Inevitably, disruption meant that the voting rate among Koreans abroad was very low at 23.8% (40,858 voters) when compared to the first instance after voting abroad was allowed (45.7% in 2012), although still high in international comparison. Flight cancellations also meant that returning the ballot papers was slightly delayed.  

Unlike many countries in Europe and the Americas, South Korea never adopted a national lockdown and thus letting voters go to the polls did not conflict with the approach that had been adopted to fight Covid-19. Furthermore, not only the number of infections has not increased since the elections held just over two weeks ago, but it has, thus far, declined further[1]. Inevitably some delays and disruptions did occur, before, during and after the elections, but the important lesson coming out of the April 2015 is that it is possible to preserve key electoral rights even during a pandemic.

[1] Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), available at

The cover picture for this article is a photo by Jonathan O’Donnell.