Mason Students Take First Place in Virginia Redistricting Competition

Posted: March 28, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: March 28, 2011 at 10:58 am

By James Greif

A team of Mason undergraduates took home a first-place prize in a statewide college competition to redraw voting districts for Virginia. Mason’s team, which was one of 13 that took part, garnered a $2,000 award in the competition division of the contest for redrawing Virginia’s House of Delegates districts.

The Virginia Redistricting Competition contest was organized by Michael McDonald, Mason associate professor of public and international affairs, and Quentin Kidd, associate professor of political science at Christopher Newport University.

“This project was a great success in bringing greater public participation and educating the public on redistricting,” McDonald says. “The contest helped to put a human face to the process, and students learned firsthand the difficulty in drawing districts to the intent of the law.”

The students were challenged to create legislative districts that are compact, contiguous, equal in population, in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, encompassing minority communities and respectful of existing political subdivisions.

The House of Delegates map was drawn by Mason students Dominick Liberatore, Billy Leucht, James Nance and Nicholas O’Boyle. The Mason redistricting team also included Martin Bonica, Sasha Brisbon, Elanor Donlen, Marissa Dorsey, Natalie Filzen, Frank Garvey, Frank Giglio, Emma Leahy, Howard Marano and Deepali Nayyar.

“I could not be more proud of the maps the Mason students produced,” says Gabriel Hudson, faculty advisor to the Mason redistricting team and instructor in the Department of Public and International Affairs. “In a short period of time they were able to balance several competing criteria and redistrict Virginia in a logical, fair and practical manner.”

Leucht, a team member majoring in government and international politics, says, “The redistricting competition was an excellent opportunity for students to get personally involved in the political process. Drawing the maps turned out to be fun, as well as a learning experience.”

The teams used online redistricting software developed by the Public Mapping Project, a collaborative effort led by McDonald and Micah Altman, a senior research scientist at Harvard University.

Teams from William & Mary, the University of Virginia and the University of Richmond took first-place prizes in the competition’s other five categories that included Virginia’s state senate and U.S. congressional districts.

The competition was judged by Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. The winners were announced on March 22 at a reception at the Library of Virginia hosted by the League of Women Voters.

The U.S. Constitution requires that states adjust all legislative districts in accordance with the population shifts reflected by the most recent census, which was completed last year. Because Virginia has General Assembly elections this fall, the state is one of the first in the nation to tackle redistricting.

McDonald is leading the map-drawing efforts for the governor’s advisory commission on redistricting. Draft legislative districts from the Virginia General Assembly are expected in late March, followed by public hearings at locations across the state.

The maps produced by the students in the contest could be used for comparison with the state’s proposed plans.

“I believe what we learned from these student maps will have a profound impact on how we move forward with Virginia’s redistricting,” McDonald says.

McDonald adds that the success of the competition could lead other states to have similar student contests.

“We are getting a lot of interest from around the country as the result of what we did here,” McDonald says.

The students’ map of 100 House districts and a narrative of their plan is available online.

Write to mediarel at