Insights and Analysis

Korean Elections: A Model of Best Practice

April 20, 2016

By Tim Meisburger

Last week, South Koreans went to the polls to elect new National Assembly representatives, with results showing that the governing party led by President Park Geun-hye has lost its majority in Parliament. In Korea, Parliamentary elections are seen as a harbinger of what’s to come in the presidential election, so the results are highly anticipated. However, the electoral process itself – which went smoothly and peacefully – is a model of best practice, and warrants a closer look.

Koreans cast their ballots in April 13 Parliamentary elections. Photo/Tim Meisburger

Koreans cast their ballots in April 13 Parliamentary elections. Photo/Tim Meisburger

I was in Korea as a participant in the Korea Election Visitor Program, co-sponsored by the Korean National Election Commission (NEC) and the Incheon-based Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB). The program featured detailed demonstrations of the Korean election process, a visit to a museum to view a comprehensive exhibit on the historical development of democracy and elections in Korea, attendance at the Seoul International Forum on Elections, and an observation program for Korea’s 20th national elections.

The NEC is justly proud of their fast and efficient automated electoral process, and prior to the election we were able to see and operate the machines they use to print ballots on demand for out-of-constituency voters, machines that sort ballots based on party or candidate selected, and machines that counted marked ballots.

People that know me know I am skeptical of mechanized voting. I often see machine-based or automated voting promoted as a means to address capacity gaps, procedural flaws, or weaknesses in the integrity of an electoral process. But I’m doubtful that automating a flawed process can improve that process. If you have a good process, automation can increase speed and efficiency, but to the extent that it reduces the transparency of a process, it will negatively affect public perceptions of the credibility and legitimacy of the elections.

While this observation is relevant for all electoral processes, there are additional concerns associated with the introduction of complex election technology in less-developed countries. Vendors and assistance providers sometimes believe they can overcome capacity gaps or corrupt practices through the introduction of advanced technology, but in my experience this is seldom the case. Development professionals have talked about appropriate technology and sustainability for decades, and the fact that these basic principles are seldom cited in election assistance programming illustrates a divide yet to be bridged between democratic development and the mainstream of development practice.

So, with that in mind, although the NEC seemed proudest of their electoral machines, they were actually not the aspect of the process I found most impressive. What I found most impressive was that it was able to successfully integrate automation into the election process without losing the transparency (and credibility) of a good manual process.

The voter register or list is linked to the national ID database, but is updated more frequently than the database to ensure the register is up to date. In-country absentee voting occurs during the early voting period. During that period, an absentee voter can walk into any early polling station in the country and vote for the candidates in their home constituency using a constituency ballot custom printed on demand. They show their ID, their registration is checked, and the machine spits out the appropriate ballot for their constituency. The ballot is then marked by the voter with the ballot stamp, sealed in an envelope, and sent to the appropriate constituency for counting.

On election day, voters can only vote in their registered constituency, which is supplied with preprinted ballots. Each polling station (usually located in schools) can handle several thousand voters, and all are accessible through either a ramp or elevator. Each station is also equipped with special devices to facilitate voting by the disabled and infirm, including braille templates for the blind, an accessible polling booth, and a mouth-held marking tool for persons with disabilities who might need it for marking.

Ballots, printed in black, are marked by the voter with a red stamp. This is important during the count, as the red stamp on the ballot is easily visible during the automated counting process. After marking the ballot, the voter places it in an ordinary ballot box. At the end of the polling day the boxes are sealed in the presence of the party agents and transported by the police, accompanied by the agents, to the constituency counting center. Normally, moving ballots before they are counted is risky, but in this case, buying counting machines for every station would be prohibitively expensive, and the movement process is sufficiently transparent to promote confidence in the process.

At the counting station (the one I visited was in a large auditorium) the sealed boxes are stored in plain view until they are ready to be counted, at which point, the box is opened and dumped out on a large table, where a team unfolds and stacks the ballots – in full view of the party agents. The ballots are then placed in a machine that scans and sorts the ballots by party chosen. When the count for any party reaches 100, a light comes on and that stack is pulled and bound with a rubber band. Any ballots the machine cannot read because of smudging or double-marks are sorted to a separate pile for human review to determine validity.

After all the ballots for a station are sorted they are counted. At this stage, one can easily riffle through a stack of ballots and see (those red marks) that they are all marked for the same party. The stack is then fed into a ballot counter that looks just like a currency counter you might see in a bank. The process is fast, but slow enough that you can see the LED number go up for each ballot counted, confirming the machine count. Finally, the total for each candidate or party is tallied and recorded.

The focus of the NEC/A-WEB program was on polling and counting processes, but we did also have one session on campaign financing. During the campaign period, political finance is tightly monitored and controlled. In an effort to level the playing field for less wealthy candidates, the amounts that can be donated to or spent by candidates and parties are limited by law. Financial disclosure is required of candidates and their close relatives, and regulations define acceptable means and media for campaigning.

The elections themselves were peaceful and credible. The votes were counted and results released within hours. The elections were also historic, as they resulted in an unexpected change in government. Overall, I would say that Korean elections are among the best I have ever seen, and provide a good model for countries interested in developing more transparent, efficient, and credible election processes.

Stay tuned for further election coverage in next week’s blog from guest writer Kim Kyoung Tae, MBC News evening news bureau chief.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for Elections and Political Processes, based in Bangkok. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Korea
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Elections, Transparency


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