Comparing Elections Under COVID-19: The Responses of United States and South Korea

Buddy Norton. Buddy is a JD candidate (2021) at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. In addition to raising awareness for international law and as an International Rule of Law and Security fellow, he is particularly interested in election law and improving how Americans vote.

Plenty of comparisons have been made between the United States’ and South Korea’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. While each country documented its first case on the same day, January 20, 2020, the South Korean response flattened the curve substantially more than did the U.S., who never truly flattened its curve and has experienced a dramatic rise in cases over the past month. As we continue to draw lessons from this public health comparison, we should also be looking to compare responses to elections during the pandemic. 

South Korea held its national legislative election on April 15, one week after the contentious elections in Wisconsin. The comparatively contained outbreak in South Korea allowed officials there to make fewer election changes than those made in Wisconsin after lawsuits. But the difference that highlights lessons to be learned is not the number of changes but the body making them. 

South Korea’s early post-independence elections were dogged by corruption and violence, and several were undermined by coups. Following a democratic mass protest that resulted in the nation’s current constitution, a new body was established to centrally manage and guarantee free and fair elections. The National Elections Commission (NEC) is led by nine election experts elected by the heads of the traditional branches of government, including the President, Legislature, and Supreme Court. Despite this elected structure, the NEC stands on equal constitutional terms with these traditional bodies. 

So, when it came time to decide how, or whether, to hold the national legislative election as planned, the people of South Korea looked to the NEC. The President and the legislature contemplated a more dramatic response utilizing their separate jurisdiction over elections, but concluded that their involvement would do more harm than good due to the historical suspicion about parties in power altering elections. 

The NEC in turn instituted a series of election changes focusing on public health. Voters were assessed for coronavirus symptoms upon entering a polling place, and those showing symptoms were directed to separate voting sites. Voters were also required to wear masks and stay three feet apart, and were given gloves to use when voting. Quarantined voters were directed to vote later in the day to avoid exposure, and hospitalized voters were permitted to vote by mail or at polling places established in hospitals. 

These measures stand in stark contrast to the American experience. The U.S. federal system of election management has had a dramatic influence on federal and state election responses to COVID-19. So far, more than 40 states have altered their elections in response to the virus. the More than 25 of those states have simply postponed an election; little uniformity among other election alterations can be found. These states have taken measures including executive orders, narrow and comprehensive legislation, court cases, and emergency regulations or statutory powers. Moreover, while some of these alterations were made months before the election date, some have happened only hours before, and public outreach campaigns have varied in quality regardless of when a change was made.

Altogether, these responses have not only confused voters as to when and how they should vote, but have also undermined confidence in our elections, with passionate criticism coming from both sides of the ideological aisle. This is exactly what the South Korean model seeks to avoid. While that model cannot be neatly imported into the American federalist system, it can teach us how to better prepare in the future. Whether it is legislation from Congress or the state houses, standardized emergency plans from election officials, or popular initiatives, Americans would benefit from planning for future election emergencies by centralizing responses in a politically insulated body.

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