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Mapping out academic and real-world experiences

Senior recounts experience in Virginia’s redistricting process
By Zachary LeMaster ('12)

Zachary LeMaster ('12)

Beyond the door in front of students is another dimension, one of sound, sight and mind. The land we students will move into is one of shadow and substance, of things and ideas. No, I am not referring to the Twilight Zone, but of the real world of politics. What we learn in class will surely help us succeed, but hands-on experiences are icing on the cake.

One of the biggest criticisms of higher education has been that students learn academic theories that challenge their minds but do not prepare them for practical politics outside of the classroom. Being able to write an essay about the disenfranchisement of minorities in the electoral process is a good learning experience; actually understanding the real-world politics of redrawing political districts is a lesson that will last a lifetime. Students need both the academic and practical experiences to be successful. JMU professors understand this. In the spring 2011 semester, the JMU Department of Political Science took a step beyond the intellectual sphere and into reality and encouraged students to compete in the Virginia College and University Legislative Redistricting Competition.

“It’s one thing to lecture on how gerrymandering works. Students typically shrug their shoulders and think it’s just politics as usual. Or worse, they become cynical and think the process is so broken and corrupt that it’s out of their power to do anything about it,” says Dr. Tim LaPira, one of two political science professors who mentored students in the competition. “It was quite another thing to put students in the shoes of the map makers and have them balance all the competing political interests that are at stake in the redistricting process.”

The task at hand was to use new open-access software to redraw the Virginia House of Delegates, Senate, and U.S. House districts within the Commonwealth of Virginia using the newly released 2010 census population data. Students also had to explain their redistricting strategy in an essay.

This appeared — on its surface — an easy goal to achieve. How hard could it be to draw up a couple of districts? But the challenge students faced was to balance several redistricting principles. Factors that had to be considered when forming these maps were contiguity, compactness, equal population, existing political subdivisions, communities of interest and the Voting Rights Act. Students were allowed to enter one of two divisions. For each map (Virginia House of Delegates, Virginia Senate, and U.S. Congress) students could submit one in each division that either included party registration data (Division 1) or excluded it (Division 2) based on the governor’s directive that the actual redistricting process be blind to partisan divisions.

A number of higher education institutions in Virginia competed for several first- and second-place prizes ranging from $500 to $2,000. Of the 13 colleges and universities that participated, JMU, William & Mary School of Law, and the University of Virginia were the only schools that fielded two teams. Teams comprised eight to 10 students each. The Richmond-based nonprofit Virginia 21, the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, and the Public Mapping Project, the creator of the software, sponsored the competition. Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann and American Enterprise Institute fellow Norman Ornstein judged the entries.

JMU teams were led by LaPira and Dr. Chris Koski. I was on Dr. Koski-s team, which we named “The A-Team.” LaPira’s was “Team #1.” Students chose how to divide the labor, and both teams thought it would be most effective to set up three sub-teams with each unit redrawing one of the maps for the House of Delegates, Virginia Senate or U.S. Congress. My unit was charged with redrawing the House of Delegates’ 100 districts. The software took a little getting used to; and while it had its flaws, it did allow us to complete the task at hand. As a team, we set some standards to prioritize equal population, political subdivisions and the Voting Rights Act. Then each sub-team drew what we thought were ideal districts. We did our best to take into account all factors, so it was a balancing act. After the districts were constructed, we each took a couple of the features and wrote about how we had ensured that the particular variable was accounted for in our map. Teamwork and effective communication were essential to complete this project.

Competing in the Virginia College and University Legislative Redistricting Competition was an incredibly rewarding experience. Our professors constantly remind us in lectures that politics can be a messy business. It takes a lot of tinkering with complex ideas that lead to less-than-ideal compromises. This competition brought that point home effectively. The JMU Department of Political Science has put something solid in the hands of students — experience with real, practical politics.