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Students create their own congressional districts

classroom setting
November 29, 2011

Just as Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission is embroiled in controversy as it works to draw new congressional districts, students in Amit Ron’s “Democracy” (POS 446) class have been using computer software to devise their own versions of those districts.

Ron is an assistant professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, which offers bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees in political science as well as a minor in the field. New College is the core college on ASU’s West campus.

“The redistricting process has a crucial role in shaping the political landscape of Arizona for the next 10 years,” said Ron, who joined New College in 2008. “The shapes of the congressional and legislative districts are important for determining who will be elected as a representative. But this is not all. They also determine the nature of the relationship between the representatives and their constituency – what kind of work representatives need to do in order to gain the trust of their voters.”

Because of population growth, Arizona will gain a representative in the U.S. Congress as the state’s number of districts grows from eight to nine.

“In most states, the current politicians are those who redraw districts,” Ron explained. “Arizona is unique in that it asks an independent bipartisan commission to draw districts. California has a commission that is composed in part of citizens selected by lottery. The hands-on experience in redistricting allows us to reflect on the question of which process is the most justified.”

Computer technology enables students and ordinary citizens, for the first time in the history of redistricting, to have access to mapping software that is very similar to what mapping experts are using. Students, and in fact everyone with a computer and internet connection, can draw their own proposal for redistricting. The students in POS 446 who used online maps to create their own versions of the districts obtained a first-hand understanding of the intricacies of the process.

“My partner and I focused primarily on keeping districts competitive and keeping the project unbiased. I never knew, until now, what a difficult task it is because ultimately you cannot make every citizen happy,” said student Ashley Verigood.

Students have the opportunity to reflect about the meaning of geographic representation and the different ways in which citizens can be represented, Ron said. “For example, is it more ‘right’ to pack ethnic minorities into a small number of districts with minimal presence in other districts or to have them as a significant minority in a larger number of districts?”

This question was particularly relevant for student Brenda Rios.

“Although competition is widely regarded as a pivotal factor in our nation, I feel, due to the large percentage of minorities, that they must be accounted for as well,” Rios said. “Being a member of a minority population myself, I know there are issues that could never be resolved if no one was looking out for us. I am a firm believer in the phrase, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ and would hate to see that continue with the majority groups in Arizona. I am very glad, however, that Arizona has established an independent redistricting committee to take care of the process. This gives me more faith in the fact that there will be more equal representation in our state if the politicians are removed from the process.”

Ron views the redistricting project as a launching pad for discussion about central tenets of democratic theory. “First, the process of redistricting raises the question of who decides the rules through which the people express their voices,” he said. “Also, there are substantive questions of where to draw the boundaries between the districts: what makes communities of interest, are minority-majority districts necessary, how to measure competitiveness, and so on.”

For student Daniel Dreyer, the class project provided a new perspective on the looked-down-upon process of gerrymandering, in which oddly shaped districts are created.

“The situation in Arizona is that the most densely populated areas lean heavily toward the Republican side, and my own experience in attempting to make a ‘bipartisan state’ based off the division into nine equally populated districts rendered me stumped,” Dreyer said. “No matter what I tried, the districts always come out Republican when they are not gerrymandered. It has caused me to question the legitimacy of gerrymandering. Whereas inherently it is a bad thing, it may be the only cure for Arizona to have a bipartisan group gerrymander the districts.”

This type of revelation is what Ron hopes to evoke among students, especially in a senior-level class like POS 446.

“I see 400-level classes as an opportunity for the students to learn to engage in primary research and to come to develop their own voice in regard to the subject matter,” Ron said. “Students are expected not only to be able to understand and summarize arguments that other people make but also to present their own views in a way that integrates what they learned from others. The research that students are asked to conduct in this seminar is primarily a theoretical and philosophical one.

“Our main task is not to describe or explain how democratic institution work but to explain what makes democratic decision-making legitimate. By the end of the course, students are expected to be able to discuss and evaluate the legitimacy of democratic institutions and practices from a variety of theoretical perspectives.”

Ron held academic positions at Gustavus Adolphus College, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of Toronto before coming to ASU. He focuses his research around two central themes: the political dimensions of the history of political economy, and the democratic theory of the public sphere. Ron’s work has been published in The International Journal of Peace Studies, Journal of Political Philosophy, European Journal of Political Theory, and others.