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Software Pulls Back Curtain On Redistricting Process

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We're at the start of a new decade -- and new census data pushes state legislatures into the tedious and often politically charged task of redistricting.

George Mason University students Brian Leucht and Nick O'Boyle are staring at a digital map of Virginia that puts the task of redistricting into their hands. Right now they're focused on working to redraw state House district lines without breaking up ethnic neighborhoods in Richmond.

Students here are participating in a statewide contest along with counterparts at 13 different state schools.

Their final state maps will be judged on population balance, compactness of districts, and adherence to voting laws protecting minority populations.

Leucht, who's a freshman, says he's never felt as much a part of the political process as he does now.

"Everyone wants to be involved politically, but no one actually does anything about it," Leucht says. "I don't know how much more involved you can get -- [than] actually redrawing the districts."

The contest wouldn't be possible without the open source software associate professor Michael McDonald helped design.

McDonald says redistricting actually affects who wins and who loses political office over the next ten years -- and thanks to the Internet, for the first time, citizens don't just have to sit back and watch.

"We're gonna have a new yardstick to compare the legislature's plan against, and it's gonna open up a new dialogue about redistricting and how we might proceed moving forward," McDonald says.

Students have to submit their final maps in March -- state legislators could stretch the official process well into the summer.

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