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Students Create District Maps to Win Congressional Redistricting Contest

By Serena Solomon | January 18, 2012 3:16pm
The winning map by students from SUNY Buffalo Law School.
The winning map by students from SUNY Buffalo Law School.
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SUNY Buffalo Law School

MANHATTAN — A team from SUNY Buffalo Law School won a student competition designed to promote public participation in the state's congressional redistricting process.

The team of seven law students stood out among the other 17 teams, by envisioning two majority Hispanic congressional districts in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan as a way to give ethnic minority New York voters a louder voice in the election process. The 2012 New York Redistricting Project competition coincides with the nationwide requirement to redesign the way voting districts are formed, as well as an attempt to highlight the free software "District Builder," which allows anyone to try their hand at congressional district mapping.

"We really want to raise awareness and show people how easy it is to be involve in the redistricting, especially with this new software," said Costas Panagopoulos, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University and director of the 2012 New York Redistricting Project.

Because federal criteria for congressional districts require each to have roughly the same population, boundaries need to be readjusted every ten years based on updated census data. The last census was taken in 2010.

The racial and ethnic makeup of each district is also an important factor to ensure minority groups have effective voting power, and the competition is intended to highlight that process, participants said.

"We learned a lot of humility," said 26-year-old SUNY BUffalo law student Andrew Dean, who was a member of the winning team. "It was a daunting task."

Dean said his team had a new respect for the state legislature, which is in charge of coming up with New York's map by balancing factors such as population numbers and partisan politics.

“Legislators inherited them,” said Dean. “They can’t go crazy like we did and go from scratch.”

There is currently only one majority Hispanic district in all of New York state, and the addition of another by the Buffalo University team was one element that impressed the judges, hypothetically giving more voting power to that minority group.

"We were very respectful of ethnic minorities," said Dean.

The team from Buffulo found there was sufficient numbers in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx to forge two majority districts covering neighborhoods such as Inwood, Melrose and Rose Hill.

The team also attempted to create a Asian American majoirty district, but only had the numbers and concentration to create a plurality district in Queens.

"To make such a district, we would have ended up drawing an 'octopus' in the middle of Queens," said Dean, "that would have compromised compactness and contiguity."

District Builder, the software used by the teams to create the maps, was developed by the Public Mapping Project to make the often contentious and opaque process more transparent and accessible to the public.

"The purpose was to open up transparency and open up public participation in the redistricting process," said Dr. Michael McDonald, co-principal investigator with the Public Mapping Project, a national organization.

The Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit grant-making institution based in the city, helped finance the project.

District Builder can be accessed on the Public Mapping Project website.