A group of political science students recently got to experience the real world implications of the research they had spent weeks completing.

Caleb Routhier, '11, Karin Eastby, '11, and Andrew Slater, '11, participated in the 2011 Virginia College and University Redistricting Competition, with political science professor Dan Palazzolo serving as their adviser. Their team won for its House of Delegates map, and in early April Routhier spoke in front of the General Assembly about the process behind creating the map — leaving at least one lawmaker miffed.

The Hampton Roads-area Daily Press reported that Routhier ruffled a few feathers when explaining that the group had drawn a delegate out of his district because they did not take incumbent legislators’ addresses into account when creating the new districts.

“Democracy is not supposed to work with the elected officials picking who votes for them,” Routhier said. “People should choose their elected officials.”

The U.S. Constitution requires all 50 states to reapportion legislative districts every 10 years in accordance with the population shifts recorded in the Census. Using population data from the 2010 Census, student teams from 13 Virginia colleges submitted maps that pose new boundaries for Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, 100 state House districts and 40 state Senate districts.

Routhier, Eastby and Slater's first place prize for their House of Delegates map — the most complex category — came with a $2,000 prize.

Kate Lawrenz, '14, who entered a map she drew on her own in the U.S. House of Representatives category, said the process made her realize the importance of nonpartisan redistricting in ensuring that lines are drawn fairly. Without a nonpartisan process, it is far too easy to include or exclude certain precincts or counties to favor one political party over another, she said.

“Naturally, politicians do not want to lose their seat in the next election,” she said. “… Constituents should pick their representatives. Representatives should not pick their constituents.”

Teams followed the criteria guiding Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Independent Advisory Commission on Redistricting: equal population, contiguity, compactness, maintaining communities of interest and preserving majority-minority districts. In addition, Virginia must adhere to the Federal Voting Rights Act, which ensures that minority districts are treated fairly.

Routhier, Eastby and Slater used a new software created for the competition to draw the map, which they said took more than 20 hours to complete. The most difficult areas to redistrict were the densely populated northern Virginia region, the Tidewater region and the metropolitan Richmond region.

Because of population shifts — increases in urban areas and decreases in rural areas such as Southside Virginia — voting districts had to reflect those shifts.

“Going into it, it was a little overwhelming to look at 100 districts with the numbers in front of you,” Eastby said. “It seems like a task that’s too big to be completed. Once you start doing it, it’s kind of addictive. That’s why we spent so many hours on it. It’s a fun process and you know if you just work on it for enough time, it will turn out.”

Of course, the process wasn’t nearly as personal for these students as it can be for lawmakers, some of whom have represented certain districts for years and want to protect their political standing in the General Assembly.

The partisan process typically hits a few nerves among the members of the legislature, which is why McDonnell created his bipartisan commission in 2010. The commission made recommendations to the General Assembly, presenting the students’ maps for consideration.

“It has to be more fun for us than if you’re in the General Assembly,” Eastby said. “I know we changed some of the districts so much, but we didn’t have to worry about who we were cutting out. We didn’t have opposition to the changes we were making. For us it was more of a puzzle.”

Eastby and Routhier said they won because of the way they kept districts compact and kept communities of interest together, such as eliminating a single district that spanned the Chesapeake Bay.

Although it’s hard to tell exactly what effect the competition maps might have on the final process, the students hope the public input helps to make the process more transparent.