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College Contest In Va. Could Help Demystify Redistricting

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Web-based software is allowing college students at GMU and other citizens to try their hand at redrawing political boundaries for the first time.
Jonathan Wilson
Web-based software is allowing college students at GMU and other citizens to try their hand at redrawing political boundaries for the first time.

In Virginia, developing technology suggests we could be on the verge of a new era of public involvement in what has long been a mysterious process.

The 15 students in a campus computer lab at George Mason University, clicking and dragging their versions of a redrawn Virginia political map, are focused on something that could have just as much political significance as any upcoming election.

That's certainly the way associate professor of government Michael McDonald sees it.

He helped design the software that allows these students to experiment with redistricting.

He's also coordinating a statewide contest to reward the best redistricting maps drawn by college students from 13 schools.

"This is just one of the disconnects that we have," McDonald says. "People become fascinated about campaigns and candidates, but this process, which is really going to set the table on who's going to win and lose elections over the next decade -- nobody really pays attention to that."

McDonald says it's not necessarily that the public hasn't been interested.

Redistricting requires a lot of data and a lot of calculations and up until now, it's been too expensive and technical for many people outside of the government and major political parties to get involved.

But advances in web-based software are changing that.

Gabriel Hudson -- a doctoral candidate helping to guide the George Mason students -- says he doesn't even know which students are Republicans and which are Democrats here.

"I think the maps that the students come up with -- will be more fair and more representative, just because of the spirit of the competition," Hudson says.

Emma Leahy is a freshman. She points to a voting block colored dark gray on the screen, indicating a neighborhood that's largely African-American.

"And we would not want to draw a large line through there -- that would not be good," she says. "We want to preserve communities."

That's just one criterion for grading the students' maps -- judges will also look how compact each new district is, how politically fair and competitive they are, and whether the maps adhere to federal voting laws.

Leahy says at this point she's still experimenting -- working her way toward the areas that will take the most work.

"Northern Virginia is gonna be really hard," she says.

That's because Northern Virginia has seen major population growth in the past ten years.

McDonald says most of the growth has come past the suburbs of Fairfax and Arlington, and into the "ex-urbs" of Prince William and Loudoun Counties.

"Those area's have grown tremendously -- in fact so much so that you're probably looking at a state senate district created out in that direction," he says.

McDonald says that will make things a little more fair for Northern Virginia.

He says it hasnt had as much influence over taxing and spending decisions in Richmond as it deserves.

But McDonald also says states across the country have a long way to go to make redistricting truly fair.

He says only Florida and California have passed laws addressing redistricting fairness in the past ten years.

"If you wanna say that we're moving toward less politics in terms of redistricting, we are moving in that direction," he says. "But it's pretty much baby steps at this point."

McDonald is hoping that whats happening in this classroom will also make a difference.

He says the maps produced by the students will offer a point of comparison for the final map produced by legislators.

And soon anyone with the time and interest will be able to do what these students are doing.

McDonald and his colleagues are working to make their software available free online for anyone across the state, and the country, to try redrawing political lines.

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