South Korea Prepares for Another Covid-Era National Election

SEOUL — South Korea, which is experiencing its largest Covid-19 wave yet, will set aside a 90-minute window just for voters with the coronavirus to cast their ballots at polling stations next month.

The recent surge in coronavirus cases had raised questions about how the country’s tight presidential election would be held. Lawmakers agreed this week to reserve 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on March 9, Election Day, for voters with Covid. The rest of the electorate will vote from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“Protecting everyone’s right to vote is paramount,” Dr. Jung Jae-hun, a professor who is a Covid-19 policy adviser to the prime minister, said in an interview. “It’s entirely possible to do so while preventing outbreaks.”

The National Election Commission reported on Thursday that interest in voting in the upcoming election was at its highest since 2012, demonstrating that the surge in coronavirus infections might not dampen turnout.

Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party are neck and neck.

About 44 million eligible voters reside in South Korea, according to the election commission. But at the rate that infections are going, as many as one million might have Covid by Election Day, according to Dr. Jung, who is also a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University near Seoul.

The government’s health protocols require people with Covid to remain in isolation at home. The special time window on Election Day would allow them to leave for the purposes of casting their ballot.

The daily caseload in South Korea was 93,135 on Thursday. By comparison, in the last nationwide election of the coronavirus era, in 2020, the government reported fewer than 40 new ​infections a day.

The Omicron variant has overwhelmed South Korea’s public health system so much that the government abandoned its use of mobile QR codes for contact tracing purposes this week, leaving individuals responsible for alerting their close contacts if they test positive.

Some legal experts and officials said the government should provide more ways for people with the coronavirus to vote. Young-Soo Chang, a professor of law at Korea University, said the government should have allotted two time slots instead of one.

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