(ATTN: UPDATES with voter turnout, other details in paras 5-8)
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, April 10 (Yonhap) -- Voters wearing face masks and disposable gloves cast their ballots on Friday, with a number of people queuing in front of polling places near their offices at lunchtime.
Having successfully slowed the spread of coronavirus infections recently, South Korea has gone ahead with the quadrennial elections, slated for next Wednesday, to fill the 300-seat unicameral National Assembly.
Early voting got underway Friday morning, as health authorities reported 27 additional cases confirmed nationwide the day before.
A total of 3,508 polling stations were set up across the country, running from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, according to the National Election Commission (NEC).
Eight of the polling stations, including five in virus-hit North Gyeongsang Province, were set up at facilities where patients with mild symptoms are being treated.
Voter turnout came in at 12.14 percent on the first day of the two-day advance voting, as around 5.33 million people cast their ballots, according to the election watchdog.
It is much higher than 5.45 percent on the first day of early voting in the 2016 parliamentary elections and marks a record high since the advance voting system was introduced in 2013 to enable people to vote in person at any polling station in the country.
By region, voter turnout was the highest in South Jeolla Province at 18.18 percent and lowest in Daegu, considered the epicenter of the virus here, at 10.24 percent.
Voter turnout is expected to be higher than ever this year, as people vote in advance to avoid crowds amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I wanted to vote at a less busier time since I'm worried about the coronavirus, more so because I have a five-month-old child," said a 36-year old voter in the western Seoul district of Mapo.
With public safety a key priority in this year's elections, voters and officials followed strict quarantine guidelines to prevent potential infections at polling stations.
Voters were asked to stand at least 1 meter apart from each other, with officials conducting mandatory temperature checks. Some officials were seen wearing plexiglass that covered most of their face for added safety.
Voters were advised to wear face masks and were allowed to cast ballots after using hand sanitizers and putting on gloves.
To minimize the possibility of infection, machines were used for face identification. Fingerprint checks were left out as people were wearing disposable gloves.
The process was longer than usual, but most voters said they felt safe with the precautionary measures.
"It was a bit inconvenient wearing the plastic gloves, but I think the government measures are quite good since everyone's safety is at stake," said a woman in her fifties at a polling station in Suwon, just south of Seoul.
"I run an accommodation business and work through the night, so I came to vote early before I get some sleep," said a 60-year-old surnamed Kyung on the southern resort island of Jeju. "I read in the news that masks and plastic gloves were mandatory, so it wasn't really inconvenient."
Among the voters were those aged 18 who cast their first-ever ballots.
"I wanted to celebrate my first-ever vote, so I visited the polling station with my dad," an 18-year-old with the family name of Kim said at polling station in the southeastern coastal city of Geoje.
The novice voter, however, said the COVID-19 pandemic affected her plans.
"I wanted to stamp my hand and share the photo on social media, but I couldn't do that since I was wearing a plastic glove," she said.
President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun were also among those who cast their ballots early.
"It seems that social distancing is being kept at the polling station," Chung told reporters after voting at a polling station in central Seoul. "The public can be assured and come out to vote. It would be great if they could make use of early voting today and tomorrow."
The early voting system is said to have helped increase voter turnout. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, the first time it was carried out nationwide, 11.5 percent opted for early voting.
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