S. Koreans Abroad No-Show in Voter Turnout

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South Korea went to the polls Wednesday to elect 300 lawmakers who will serve the people for the next four years. This time there was a unique phenomenon not seen in previous elections ― overseas Koreans took part for the first time.

Although the elections are over, however, there is much to be desired from the latest polls. Given that overseas absentee voting could take place under a constitutional ruling made in 2007, the nation must learn lessons. The December presidential election also has adopted the overseas absentee voting system.

In a nutshell, the first overseas vote has been a failure. Of 2.23 million eligible voters, only 2.52 percent or 52,456 people cast their ballots during the six-day advance voting that took place at 158 diplomatic missions in 107 countries until April 2. Expenses amounted to 29.3 billion won, which means that about 520,000 won was spent on each overseas voter. The budget should go up further if personnel expenses and outlays for their housing for the National Election Commission (NEC) officials who were sent abroad to handle the business are added.

Most potential voters abroad declined voting due to the inconvenience of having to travel to the nearest Korean embassy or consulate twice, often by driving for hours ― one for registration and the other to actually vote.

Taking into consideration the extreme inefficiency and waste of taxpayers’ money, it’s natural that there are mounting calls to abolish the nascent system. But it would be difficult to simply call it quits, because it’s a constitutional matter and there are some overseas Koreans who strongly advocate the system. Some Korean diplomats abroad even reported that the first overseas voting was a historic event for some overseas ethnic Koreans. Especially in Japan where a number of Koreans remain after the Korean Peninsula was liberated from colonial rule, the fact that they were granted voting rights for the first time came as a milestone.

Blame should go to politicians who had neglected their duty to deliberate related laws properly. Due to partisan conflicts over the scope of suffrage and voting methods, the lawmaking process faltered.

Top priority should be given to raising the low voter turnout. One of the easiest ways to spur participation is to allow mail voting. Many countries allow their overseas voters to choose either direct or mail voting but there is lingering concern about possible election fraud that could be associated with mail voting.

Some experts warn that fraud from mail voting could be rampant and serious enough to affect the results of the elections. Given that the winners of the 15th and 16th presidential elections were determined by a margin of 390,000 and 570,000 votes, respectively, it’s not too much to say that we have to be most prudent in changing the system. It might be wiser to keep the current system for the December presidential election and change it later.