Utrecht computer scientist investigates corona measures’ effects on polling stations

Crowd simulation report discussed in House of Representatives

What are the effects of the corona measures on the course of events in polling stations? Computer scientist Roland Geraerts and his start-up uCrowds investigated this for the Dutch general election on 17 March. The simulations show that voting takes more time, but that the total delays are manageable. The resulting report, commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, was discussed in the House of Representatives, and Geraerts has offered to review the layout of individual polling stations with his crowd simulation software.

Roland Geraerts
Dr. Roland Geraerts

“The voting procedure takes longer because of the corona measures,” Geraerts explains, “but according to the electoral law, everyone who is in line before polling stations close should still be able to cast their vote.” This means that polling stations may still have to be in operation after their official closing time, leading to a possible delay in voting results. “That turns out not to be too bad. Half an hour at most, according to our simulations. Of course, the House of Representatives were pleased to hear that.”

Layout of polling stations

The simulations show that voting takes more time due to factors such as social distancing and disinfection stations at the entrance. The capacity of polling stations is lower and space for queues outside must be taken into account. Geraerts: “We ran the simulations for three typical polling stations of different sizes, calculating for each type of polling station how much extra time the voting procedure takes. In addition, we gave some advice for the procedures and layout of the polling stations.”

For instance, the simulations showed that installing three booths in the smallest type of polling station will lead to congestion. With only two booths, voters have more room to move around and the overall turnaround time is shorter. The researchers also studied two scenarios for checking voters’ ID’s and handing out ballot papers. It turns out to be more efficient if each voter is helped by only one polling station worker that performs both tasks than if these tasks are split between two polling station workers.

Fundamental research to concrete applications

“Last year in May, we expanded the mathematical model behind the simulation to take social distancing into account,” Geraerts says. “It is very nice to see this being applied. Not only for this election, but also earlier, for example for the municipal offices in Utrecht. I particularly like seeing the whole chain: from fundamental research – the mathematical model behind the simulations – to the concrete application in society: crowd simulations for improving safety and fun in your environment.”

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