Standing three feet apart, wearing masks, voters had their temperatures taken before entering the polls. All were given plastic gloves, and booths were repeatedly disinfected. Early voting was permitted, and those under quarantine could vote by mail or at a special time slot after polls closed.
Most impressive, beyond the sheer competence of the preelection planning, was that 66.2% of the electorate voted, the most in nearly three decades. In large part, this was a tribute to the success of President Moon Jae-in’s government in curbing COVID-19, making South Korea a global model and earning Moon a landslide win.
But the vote was also a tribute to South Koreans’ commitment to democracy. They were determined that the precious right to vote would not be thwarted by a virus — or by political games.
Elsewhere, Britain, France, Chile, Bolivia, and Ethiopia have postponed or canceled elections this spring due to the virus.
Many U.S. states have delayed primaries, and debate is intensifying over how to hold U.S. elections in November.
But South Korea has demonstrated what is required to preserve the public’s right to choose its leaders: political will and vision at the top.
The Seoul government recognized the country’s history demanded that it hold elections on time. “South Korea is a relatively young democracy, only since the late 1980s,” explains Jung Pak, a senior fellow and top Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. Postponing elections might have been seen by the public as a governmental effort to subvert the democratic process.
“There was a desire to go on with elections,” Pak told me, “because of the country’s authoritarian past.”
A second factor, however, enabled elections to be held on time. Call it the trust factor.
“People had confidence in the Moon government because it had done a good job in keeping the virus under control,” says Pak.
And how did President Moon earn that trust? By demonstrating his respect for science and expertise in fighting COVID-19, says Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Almost from the beginning (after a brief, rocky start in fighting the virus), Moon practiced “political distancing,” leaving public direction of the coronavirus battle largely to Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Live briefings were held at the KCDC’s headquarters, not at the Blue House (Seoul’s equivalent of the White House). The agency’s head, Jung Eun-kyeong, became a public icon with her real-time graphs and data. “Her success has to do with the fact that there was political will behind letting scientists take the lead,” says Pak.
“It was as if [Dr. Deborah] Birx and [Dr. Anthony] Fauci were the only ones on the stage,” Snyder adds.
Driven by memories of casualties in the 2015 MERS epidemic, South Korea had prepared its public health system to tackle a future virus. In a supreme irony, the KCDC acted on best practices shared with them by the American CDC.
The government did its part by ensuring that supplies of tests were available for drive-through sites, along with sufficient masks and equipment. The result: Seoul never formally had to shut down its economy and new cases have dropped to fewer than 50 a day from a peak of 909 in late February.
As for election planning, says Snyder, South Korea integrated those best health practices into its preparations for the April 15 national election. Every registered voter got a 10-step guide on how to behave and what to expect at polling places, which were numerous,and sufficiently staffed to avoid unmanageable lines.
We won’t know for another two weeks whether, despite precautions, these elections will produce a spike in virus cases. But voters were clearly willing to chance it. “Individual Korean voters made the decision that the right to vote was worth the health risk,” Snyder says.
I believe that the same fervor to preserve America’s democracy will drive U.S. citizens to the polls in November -- if the White House takes the steps necessary to ensure safety.
Instead, President Trump still refuses to organize the national coordination of testing, and the distribution of vital supplies, required before the country can restart. He still claims, falsely, that there is sufficient testing.
GOP legislators refuse to appropriate funds to prepare for the November vote. They steadfastly oppose preparations for mass voting by mail, which may be necessary if the virus resurges.
The South Korea election signals what we could achieve if we could only follow the guidelines that our CDC once provided to Seoul’s experts. We have the scientists – and the committed voters.
What we lack is a president willing to forgo political games in the interest of country. Watch South Korea and weep.