Why overseas Koreans don’t vote
NEW YORK ― The upcoming Korean presidential election is a big deal ― and an even bigger one for Koreans overseas, or so we’re told.
As it will be the first-ever presidential election allowing Korean citizens living abroad to vote, the ballot ― to be held in December ― is not only said to hold historical significance but also has the potential of become a game changer.
But despite all the talk back at home, there’s not much action here. Not much at all.
According to the National Election Commission (NEC), 1,259 voters in the U.S. have registered as of July 30. Registration began on July 22.
This figure is embarrassingly low considering the 860,000 eligible voters in the U.S., who constitute almost 40 percent of the 2.23 million overseas Koreans eligible to cast ballots in December.
So why aren’t people will to exercise their new right? The same reason they didn’t in the National Assembly elections in April.
``It’s a system made to inconvenience voters,’’ said Moon Tae-soo, 46, who runs a dry cleaners in central Connecticut. ``A lot of Koreans who own businesses here can’t possibly take time off from work to drive for hours and vote. I take it as they don’t really want us to vote.’’
Voting online or by mail is not permitted. The law requires Korean expatriates to visit the consulate general in person to register and again to vote, which means at least two trips to missions are necessary.
The April elections posted a 1.2-percent voter turnout in the U.S., a lower-than-expected result due to the inconvenient registration and voting process.
``I have to drive six hours to go to the closest embassy. That’s 12 hours round trip ― enough said,’’ says Kim Mi-young, 35, a housewife who lives in Buffalo, New York.
For some, going through the hassle of the April elections actually turned out to be a turnoff.
``The ballot box was all beaten up, almost as if it was about to fall apart,’’ says one female voter, who went to Los Angeles to vote. ``Walking out of the building, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my ballot would be managed properly.’’
Korean nationals in the U.S. echo the need for a more advanced and convenient method but lawmakers are at odds over related bills that have been submitted to the National Assembly.
If passed, an improved system enabling mail and Internet voting will be introduced.
But overseas voting is still uncharted water for the most part, leaving politicians uncertain about their gains and losses.
The ruling Saenuri Party projected early on that they would benefit from a high voter turnout, particularly in the U.S. where Korean expatriates are traditionally seen as having conservative leanings.
But the results of the April elections told a different story.
The liberal opposition Democratic United Party and its coalition partner, the left-leaning United Progressive Party, clinched 49.4 percent of votes in the U.S., as opposed to the Saenuri Party, which took 40 percent, according to the NEC.
``We saw a bigger turnout among younger voters so that may have helped the opposition parties,’’ said an NEC official.
No one knows how many people will show up for the upcoming presidential election but one thing for sure is that campaigners aren’t in a position to ignore overseas voters.
In the 1997 race for Cheong Wa Dae, the difference in the vote count between the winner and runner-up was only 390,000.
So far, opinion polls have shown tight competition between potential candidates for the December bid, which makes overseas ballots matter more.
And for some, this gives more reason to act despite all the trouble.
``Knowing that my vote can make a difference definitely motivates me,’’ says Choi In-sook, 56, who runs a nail salon in Manhattan.
Choi Jin-kap, a member of the Korean-American Association of Greater New York, stressed, ``Finally we’ve been given this privilege. Patriotism isn’t anything fancy. It starts with voting.’’