MU students win big in voting district contest

Rebecca Dunphy, Staff writer

Congratulations are in order for Mercyhurst University students Elise Lashinsky, Sophia Jensen and Logan Ford, who were recognized as division and district winners in the Draw the Lines PA contest.

Draw the Lines PA is a nonpartisan initiative to provide Pennsylvanians with the tools to draw a valid election map. In doing so, they learn about gerrymandering and advocate for a larger voter role in redistricting.

Nearly 100 Mercyhurst students entered the contest and created maps as part of the Political Theory class taught by Joseph Morris, Ph.D.

“Before this was an official assignment, we were planning on submitting it just because we found it fun and interesting,” said Jensen.

Fellow classmate and History major Ethan Wagner explained the process by which students divided the districts.

“Using the interactive tool, we were able to go through the state map and click on either whole counties or sometimes very specific communities in order to determine how to split up congressional districts,” Wagner said. “We attempted to strike the most perfect balance possible between equal population numbers for each district, competitiveness, compactness and continuity, among other factors.”

Wagner realized quite how difficult redistricting can be.

“Oftentimes this took quite a bit of back and forth adjusting and moving individual communities from one congressional district to another in order to meet the equal population requirement,” Wagner said.

Lashinsky, a senior Political Science major, earned first place in the Central Division in the Draw the Lines PA contest, while Ford and Jensen, both junior Political Science and Intelligence Studies majors, won second place for the Western District.

“I certainly didn’t expect to do so well in the competition,” Lashinsky said. “I really just thought it would be a fun learning experience for me, and to do as well as I did was a delightful surprise. It just goes to show that anyone can participate in contests like these and really have an active role in effectuating positive change in the political system.”

All three students will be advancing on to final judging, where they will be competing for statewide prizes, ranging from $2,000 for runner-ups to $4,500 for the champion.
“Making it this far in the competition has been a wonderful surprise,” Jensen said. “It feels great to be recognized for our work, especially because it’s such an important topic.”
Ford shared similar sentiments. “For me, being recognized for such a meaningful project at this level is a truly an honor and a highlight of my collegiate career, especially because it’s about something I’m passionate about,” he said.

Winners will be announced Feb. 6 in an event in the Rotunda of the State Capital building in Harrisburg.

While winning would be exciting, the students agreed that the most important takeaway from this experience is the recognition of the influence of gerrymandering.

“Gerrymandering is something that affects every aspect of politics, because politics is ‘done’ by the people elected,” Jensen said. “If people are elected from unfair districts, the actions of the government may be less representative of the population’s needs and desires. On that same note, politics is something that all should care about, especially at a local level, because it does affect all aspects of our lives.”

Ford applauds the competition for its ability to educate the public on this important issue.

“The Draw the Lines Competition made the issue of gerrymandering and the difficulties in overcoming it accessible and understandable to the public,” Ford said. “The biggest takeaway from the competition is just how difficult it is to create a fair, balanced district.”