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2011 News Releases

Longwood students participate in statewide redistricting competition

March 31, 2011

Boundary map of Virginia's 11 congressional districts as submitted by Longwood University students
Boundary map of Virginia's 11 congressional districts as submitted by Longwood University students

A team of Longwood University students participated recently in a statewide competition designed to help lawmakers redraw Virginia's political map.

In the first such competition in the nation, student teams at 13 colleges and universities proposed new boundaries for Virginia's 11 congressional districts, 100 state House districts and 40 state Senate districts. The "Virginia Legislative Redistricting Competition" was organized by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. Legislative redistricting takes place in each state after census data is released every 10 years.

Longwood's seven-member team submitted a map for the U.S. House of Representatives districts in Virginia, which will remain at 11, and the Virginia House of Delegates. Due to time constraints, the team did not submit one for the Virginia Senate. The best two maps in each of the three categories were awarded cash prizes recently and will be presented for consideration by the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission created by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

"This was a great opportunity to affect policy," said the team's faculty adviser, Dr. Mary Carver, assistant professor of political science and pre-law adviser. "It was very challenging, and it was even more challenging because there were some issues with the newly released software we had to use for the mapping. Plus, the people we were competing against included third-year law students."

The Longwood team, selected by Carver, consisted of juniors Chris Cheatham, Ollie Garland, Matt Michaw and Corey Morris and sophomores Destiny Jones, Peter Martin and Kala Quinn. Organizers of the competition, which sought to help educate students and the public about the redistricting process, had suggested teams of from eight to 10 members.

"I chose these students because I knew they were hard-working and would give it their all," Carver said. "Some of them are from my Congress class, a 300-level course, and some are from my State and Local Government class, a 200-level course. Kala Quinn and Destiny Jones, who are my advisees, plan to attend law school."

Carver learned of the competition last December, and Dec. 15 was the deadline to enter. The team was chosen in January a week or two after the spring semester began. "Mapping information, census data and re-apportionment data was released in early February, and since the deadline for submissions in the competition was March 10, the students didn't have long to work on it," Carver said.

What did the students learn? "My students learned about teamwork," said Carver. "In addition to the group as a whole, which met with me every Tuesday afternoon to discuss how things were going, there were sub-groups. Some students worked just on the map for the Virginia House of Delegates, or just the map for the U.S. House, or just the map for the Virginia Senate.

"They also learned about redistricting, about how difficult it is to do it right. It takes a lot of time and tweaking to get the numbers right. I think they're happy it happens only once every 10 years! It's not as easy as it sounds. It's hard not to gerrymander no matter how hard you try. You had to take so many factors into consideration in drawing up these districts - they had to be compact, contiguous, equal in population, comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, encompass communities of interest, and respect existing political subdivisions, such as counties. Sometimes you would have the population right, but then you'd have a weird little arm stick out, which you had to look for and remove for continuity."

The winners of the competition were announced March 22 at a reception at the State Library of Virginia sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Carver and the students attended the reception, which was similar to a poster session at a conference. Judges for the competition were two prominent experts on government: Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

The Constitution requires all 50 states to reapportion legislative districts in accordance with the population shifts recorded by each census. With state elections this fall, Virginia is the first to act on the 2010 Census.

Carver gives kudos to Gov. McDonnell for the bipartisan commission he appointed, which has 11 members and was announced Jan. 10. "Redistricting is always partisan," she said. "The redistricting commission the governor set up is un-partisan, though redistricting has to be approved by the state legislature."

With input from the competition and others, the governor's commission was scheduled to make its recommendation to the Virginia General Assembly by April 1, about a week before the legislature convenes in a special redistricting session.