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Drawing the Line on Gerrymandering Special Topics in American Politics: Minority Rights and Gerrymandering challenged students to redraw the Virginia House and Senate districts to improve the election process.

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In a W&L Spring Term course taught by professors Dick Kuettner and Mark Rush, students took a stab at a task that Virginia legislators themselves have struggled to manage for decades.

Special Topics in American Politics: Minority Rights and Gerrymandering challenged students to redraw the Virginia House and Senate districts to produce an alternative election map. Their goal was to make the election process fairer and more competitive, and to create more opportunities for minority representation in the Commonwealth.

In preparation for the project, the class learned about theories of minority representation and democracy, as well as the history of voting-rights discrimination. An especially relevant lesson revolved around the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, which examined whether Virginia’s legislators violated the law in their use of racial demographics when drawing the boundaries of 12 legislative districts.

The final maps in the class were created by two groups of five students each, and they were drawn with the redistricting software ArcMap. In addition to Rush and Kuettner, the maps were presented to special guest Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, a nonprofit that advocates for impartial redistricting of the Commonwealth.

Cannon was pleased by the students’ efforts to produce maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act, increase opportunities for minority voters to elect representatives of their choice, and minimize the number of split cities and counties.

“I feel like legislators will pat you on the head when you start talking about redistricting, like it’s so complicated,” he told the class. “You guys have showed that you can put much better lines in much better places. It’s not that hard, and I hope this demystified it for you. There are complex rules, but it is not impossible to do this right.”

Overall, the students were proud of their efforts and agreed that fair redistricting is not as difficult as voters have been led to believe.

“I don’t think we need to vote this into legislation tomorrow, but in terms of the system I think we are all in agreement that this is definitely a step in the right direction, considering that three weeks ago we hadn’t even touched the software before,” said Peyton McCann ’21.

Kuettner added, “Students were introduced to the Esri ArcGIS software series, including the product ArcMap with its redistricting system. The ArcGIS series is used in many facets of the corporate world, and knowledge and practical use of this software and the concepts behind it will make the students more marketable as they pursue careers after they leave W&L. These students’ skill sets are a step ahead as we move through the 21st century.”

Rush said the students’ work will form the basis of a reform proposal that will be sent to various constituencies in Virginia.

“We are truly proud of the students and thrilled that we were able to organize and run the course in a manner that enabled them to produce these projects,” he said. “This really is the total Spring Term package: innovative, blended instruction, new skills, collaborative work and an output/impact of truly important significance.”