Lee Sparrow, left, answered questions as members of the University at Buffalo Law School team look on. Photo by Michael Dames

A team from the University at Buffalo Law School and a student from George Mason University were announced on Jan. 17 as winners of the 2012 New York Redistricting Project.

Buffalo law students Andrew Dean, Lauren Skompinski, Nutan Sewdath, Eric Tabache, Matthew Burrows, Dominique Mendez, and Jacob Drum took first place for their map of New York congressional districts.

They and George Mason contestant Lee Sparrow, who won for his map of New York state senate districts, used free software to design their entries.

A $1,000 prize was given to each winning entry.

A team of Fordham students won an honorable mention for a map they created for the New York state assembly.

Next, contest organizers will search for a sponsor in New York’s senate or assembly to propose that the elements of the winning maps be incorporated into redistricting plans currently being negotiated in Albany.

The awards were the culmination of a series of workshops and panel discussions throughout the state—part of a collaborative effort by Fordham, George Mason and Harvard universities that was funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Michael McDonald, Ph.D., associate professor of government and politics at George Mason, said it was encouraging that the software used by the teams, www.publicmapping.org, has been embraced by officials in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, and Arizona, as well as cities such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia.

About 400 non-students have signed up to draw maps of their own.

Costas Panagopoulos Photo By Michael Dames

“We all know how complicated the redistricting process is, but that doesn’t mean the public should throw up its hands and not get involved,” said Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., professor of political science and director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at Fordham.

“We have been very heartened by the interest in redistricting throughout the Empire State that we have observed at our events and workshops, and also in the student competition,” Panagopoulos said.

“It’s important that we don’t talk about this only once every decade. We must continue to discuss ways to reform and improve the redistricting process that makes it fair and transparent and allows the public to remain informed.”

Sparrow, a native of England, was lauded for including a detailed narrative justifying the choices he made and for drawing a map that was sensitive to demographically distinct communities. His entry achieved the highest compactness score, resulted in competitive districts, and contained creative solutions such as splitting Long Island into North Shore/South Shore districts.

He said he focused on creating districts that would make intuitive sense to the public, with boundaries based on rail lines, highways and other natural borders. Compactness was key, as was competitiveness; his map resulted in an additional 25 districts that were highly competitive or competitive.

“Because it is so compact, it can be amended it in the future,” Sparrow said. “Rather than having to start again, you can just shift the lines in and out based on the next census.

“I met the Voting Rights Act requirement, and also had the opportunity to produce an Asian-American influence district in District 11.”

The Buffalo team did an excellent job of creating districts of equal population size—about 717,000, Panagopoulos said.

Team member Andrew Dean said a top priority was preserving communities.

“We thought that school districts were an excellent kernel by which you could build larger congressional districts. That didn’t really get implemented because we didn’t have the time to go through 660 school districts, but we’d like to at least throw that out there as an idea,” Dean said.

Contiguity was also a key issue. In New York City in particular, the team untangled some of the more tortured districts. The 8th Congressional District, which meanders from Coney Island through Brooklyn, across the East River all the way to the Upper West Side, is an example of the kind of gerrymandering they fixed in their map.

“You can drive or take a boat from any point in your district to any other point in your district without going through an intervening congressional district, he said. “That’s one of the big criticisms of our current map, which is that some districts are not contiguous.”

Buffalo team member Jacob Drum praised the software for how easily it allowed them to create districts that are more competitive than what is currently in place.

“For math geeks like me, it’s so much fun. It’s like Sim City but with the entire city,” he said.

The winning entries can be found at www.redistrictny.org/.