The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion South Korea shows the world how to hold elections during a pandemic

Election officials work at a ballot counting station in Seoul on Wednesday. (Kim Hee-Chul/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

South Korea’s legislative elections, held Wednesday, would not normally attract much attention in the United States outside of the foreign policy community. But this year might be different. The plucky South Koreans have just shown the world how to hold an election and protect public health simultaneously.

Covid-19 hit South Korea in early February. The number of cases rose rapidly, climbing to nearly 1,000 new cases per day by the end of the month. Despite this, there was never any plan to postpone the April 15 election. Instead, the nation focused on making in-person voting safe.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The system the South Koreans devised protects voters and poll workers. First, polling places were disinfected and windows opened. Voters were instructed to stand at least three feet apart, with lines carefully marked on the floor. All voters had their temperature taken, and those with temperatures above 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit) were taken from the regular line and directed to separate booths. Those who passed the temperature check sanitized their hands, put on plastic gloves and cast their ballots. Voters discarded their plastic gloves on the way out.

People suffering from the coronavirus and those under quarantine voted under even stricter measures. Those being treated for the virus could mail their ballots, but they could also vote in person at special polling booths set up just for them. Poll workers wore protective clothing to ensure they would not be infected. The 60,000 South Koreans under quarantine orders voted only at specific times at specially designated polling places and were forbidden to use public transport to get to and from the polls.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

South Koreans employed two days of in-person early voting to help reduce election day lines. More than 11 million people — nearly 27 percent of registered voters and about 40 percent of the total turnout — took advantage of this opportunity. They were subject to the same public health safety procedures as those used on election day.

One might think all of this would discourage voting, but you would be wrong. More than 66 percent of eligible voters cast votes, the highest turnout in the past 20 years. Almost all of these millions of votes were cast in person, not by mail.

Those in-person votes were also accompanied by a strict voter-identification regime. Typically, all voters must provide fingerprints as part of their registration. Because that requirement could endanger public health during a pandemic, this time voters had to present a photo ID and lower their mask so poll workers could make sure they were who they claimed to be. Somehow this all came off without claims of voter suppression or discrimination.

The lessons here are obvious. There is no reason to postpone the November elections in the United States provided we prepare for them now. And there is no reason to move to an all-mail ballot system so long as we make in-person voting safe. Voter-identification systems can be relatively foolproof and inclusive if we employ technology and good will. These steps will be expensive and require lots of planning and coordination. But those are details that can be solved if both political parties want to make it happen.

Partisan polarization is no excuse for failure. South Korean politics is also deeply polarized between a conservative and a liberal party. South Korea recently impeached and removed a conservative president, and the center-left governing party also changed the election system last year over the virulent protest of the conservative minority. Yet both parties seem to be able to agree on how to conduct an election fairly and freely, giving both election security and public health top priority.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

Americans like to think our democracy is a shining example to the world. South Korea has just schooled us on how a real democracy conducts itself under pressure. It’s time to learn our lesson and just get the job done.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Global democracy will be weakened without fair elections. South Korea shows they’re possible.

Henry Olsen: There’s plenty of room to compromise on mail-in voting. Get it done.

John Hickenlooper: My state has proved vote-at-home works. We need to do it nationally.

E.J. Dionne: Wisconsin is proof we need urgent action on voting rights

The Post’s View: Trump’s attack on vote-by-mail is an attack on democracy

The Post’s View: Republicans have a choice: Keep suppressing the vote — or improve their product