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Virginia students to attempt electoral redistricting

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Every 10 years, Virginia lawmakers redraw the House and Senate districts of the General Assembly and the congressional electoral districts to reflect changes in population growth.

The state’s partisan redistricting process has long drawn complaints that it leads to mostly single party gerrymandered districts, fewer competitive elections, a decrease in voter participation and more far-left and far-right elected officials.

Early next year, however, teams of college students across Virginia will attempt to show that they can redraw the state’s electoral districts in a nonpartisan and better way.

“The aim of the competition is educational, both for the students involved and for the commonwealth,” said Quentin Kidd, a politics professor at Christopher Newport University and a co-organizer of the competition. “The students involved will learn a great deal about redistricting, but the commonwealth will learn — I hope — that redistricting is not this scary process that is impossible to understand. And, more importantly, the commonwealth will learn that it can be done in a non-partisan way that produces maps that are every bit as good at representing people as anything the General Assembly can produce.”

Fourteen teams from a dozen Virginia universities will draw legislative lines for the 100 House of Delegates seats, 40 Virginia Senate seats and the 11 congressional districts using open source redistricting mapping software developed by George Mason University’s Public Mapping Project.

The students will be asked to redraw the state’s political districts so they are compact, contiguous, equal in population, in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, encompass communities of interest and respect existing political subdivisions. The students will not be allowed to consider voting history data or incumbent addresses and they may not draw districts with the aim of favoring one party or the other.

“In the past, I’ve had student research groups work on redistricting simulations with precinct level data from past elections,” said Charles A. Kromkowski, who will be the faculty sponsor for the University of Virginia team. “I’m, therefore, eager to have a look at the 2010 Census data and what this particular redistricting software will permit.”

The student teams — from UVa, James Madison University, the College of William & Mary, the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University and elsewhere — will develop their redistricting plans after the 2010 Census data become available in early February. The teams will present their work in late March at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. A panel of experts will select the best plans, awarding $1,000 to the best map for each legislative chamber and $500 for each chamber’s second-best plan. All non-winning teams that complete redistricting plans will receive a $200 honorary award.

Following the competition, each team’s maps will be put on display, allowing the public and members of the General Assembly to see what a nonpartisan redistricting plan might look like.

“This can show the legislators and the public what could be,” said Olga Hernandez, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, which has long supported reforms to Virginia’s redistricting process. “We believe this is a way we can highlight that there is a better option to draw the lines in a fairer, more equitable way for the public, not the protection of elected officials. We believe the voters should pick their representative, not the representative pick their voters by drawing ever safer, less competitive districts.”