Leah Walko & Colin Gressler (Carnegie Mellon, Allegheny County) - Honorable Mention, West Higher Ed

Leah Walko and Colin Gressler are Information Systems undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon. They created this map for a class project and decided to enter it into this contest.

Judges' Statement

Good scores, a well-done personal statement, and good teamwork were enough to earn an HM for this team. Nice job! 

Personal Statement

Every 10 years, after the completion of a Census districts are redrawn. Who redraws these districts? The people who have the most to gain from the process, the politicians in power. In order to stay in power, they use Gerrymandering to guarantee that they can keep their jobs. Gerrymandering involves intentionally drawing districts such that the most districts possible vote for the drawer’s party without care or consideration for who it makes the most sense to group up. At the end of the day, the voters don't pick their representatives so much as the representatives pick their voters.

As a team, we had a few ideas on how we wanted to draw the map. Our first thought was to try to break it down into a bunch of safe districts based around the less populated areas. However upon taking that approach, we noticed that the districts were not compact and were in fact almost as bad as designs that had been thrown out in court. So we made the decision to focus on two core ideas: aligning interests of the people and the compactness of the districts. This makes sense to the average voter as they can find common ground with the other members of the district and be able to hopefully have more and better representation in Congress. This map is the result of breaking districts into similarly aligned areas based around the larger cities in Pennsylvania.

We assumed that people who live in the same city will have similar interests. After that, we made another assumption that those who live some distance from the city would also have similar interests, as they lived in more rural areas. As such, we made compact districts centered around the largest cities before drawing the more rural districts that would “hug” the previously made ones. As the distance from the city would probably be the best indicator of shared interests rather than the direction from the city. Also, we tried to align the general shape of each district with each county, as those who live in the same county most likely also have similar interests. The cities we chose were Erie, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and Harrisburg. As Philadelphia was too large, we separated it into three-ish different districts.

Our target for this, was to try to have the districts be as compact as possible and as simply shaped as possible. Since it was near impossible to get a compactness of over 60 percent, we elected to instead aim to keep it consistent between 20 and 50 percent. We succeeded in that, ending with an average of 34.5 percent. The districts remain free of any strange or unusual shapes, which to the average voter will make it seem more fair than one with odd shapes.

After we had finalized what the map should look like, we then overlaid it onto a map of voter affiliation in Pennsylvania. When we looked at it, we were surprised that we had gotten it straight on the dot in terms of voter preference. The voters that voted similarly were not always grouped together, but we didn’t dilute certain voters either. The districts that were just outside of the cities did not favor one side or the other. Suburban areas typically contain more varied political leanings, so this is an accurate representation of suburban voters. Furthermore, this would likely lead to closer races and higher voter turnout. These close races would likely make sure that every vote mattered. We also didn’t pack (put all like-minded voters all into one singular district) or crack (dilute certain voters across many districts). This will hopefully lead to fairer elections.