Students win big in statewide ‘Draw the Lines’ contest

Wednesday January 23, 2019

drawlines
        (l-r) Lashinsky, Morris, Jensen, Ford

Mercyhurst University senior Sophia Jensen and junior Logan Ford have emerged as regional runner-up in Draw the Lines PA, a statewide civic education initiative intended to help Pennsylvanians learn more about political redistricting and gerrymandering while simultaneously lobbying for reform.

Using the same digital tools needed to draw a valid election map, 100 students under the supervision of Mercyhurst Political Science Department Chair Dr. Joseph Morris –  either as individuals or in groups – drew their own maps, one by one making the case for a larger voter role in redistricting.

As runner-up in the western region of Pennsylvania, Jensen and Ford earn a prize of $250. Their entry now moves to the final statewide judging, where they’ll be competing with honorees from the other two regions – East and Central PA – for the statewide prizes:  $4,500 for the state champion, $2,000 for the runner-up.

The state champs and all of the semifinalists will be publicly recognized at the Draw the Lines' awards event on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 10 a.m. in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Four more Mercyhurst students were named semifinalists: Ethan Wagner, Kara Szczublewski and Angela Belfiore, who won honorable mentions; and Lauren Rogus.

Jensen, a double major in Intelligence Studies and Political Science, is from Tempe, Arizona. “I think the project is a fantastic educational opportunity for people of all ages and fields of study, not just political science,” she said. “How an area is divided can have a huge impact on what happens in elections, which determines what happens - or doesn't - in that area later.”

Ford, also a double major in Intelligence Studies and Political Science, is from Erie and a graduate of Collegiate Academy. “The biggest takeaway from the competition is just how difficult it is to create a fair, balanced district,” he said. “It was also interesting to see how in some circumstances, an oddly shaped district could end up being more competitive than a square or circular district. The best thing that came from the competition is the conversations that otherwise wouldn't have been had on such a large scope.”

Both Jensen and Ford expressed enthusiasm for being recognized. “I am overjoyed to be second in the region for the collegiate level,” Jensen said. “Being recognized for hard work, especially for something you're passionate about, is always a good feeling.”

And for Ford, “Being able to collaborate on a meaningful project and having that hard work recognized on this level is one of the highlights of my collegiate experience.”

Morris, meanwhile, undertook the Draw the Lines challenge more as a learning opportunity for students than as a chance to win anything. Pennsylvania, he noted, is among the most gerrymandered states in the nation.

“The exercise was more about exposing the folly in the redistricting process and the nature of gerrymandering, where politicians have divided the map into political units, giving advantage to one party over the other,” Morris said.

The fact that several Mercyhurst students emerged as contest winners is icing on the cake.

“I’ve been told Mercyhurst had more map entries and more winners than any other school in the state,” Morris said. “I think their success can be credited to their hard work, ingenuity and keen attention to the process.”

(Updated Jan. 24, 2019)

Mercyhurst University students Elise Lashinsky, Sophia Jensen and Logan Ford have emerged as big winners in Draw the Lines PA, a statewide civic education initiative intended to help Pennsylvanians learn more about political redistricting and gerrymandering while simultaneously lobbying for reform.

Lashinsky, a senior political science major from Hollidaysburg in Blair County, won first place in the Central Division. Jensen, a senior from Tempe, Arizona, and Ford, a junior from Erie, both double majoring in intelligence studies and political science, teamed up to claim the runner-up prize in the Western District. The competition also included an Eastern District.

Using the same digital tools needed to draw a valid election map, 100 students under the supervision of Mercyhurst Political Science Department Chair Dr. Joseph Morris –  either as individuals or in groups – drew their own maps, one by one making the case for a larger voter role in redistricting.

The students' entries now move to the final judging, where they’ll be competing for the statewide prizes:  $4,500 for the state champion, $2,000 for the runner-up.

All of the winners will be publicly recognized at the Draw the Lines' awards event on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 10 a.m. in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, which Lashinsky, Jensen and Ford plan to attend.

Four more Mercyhurst students were named semifinalists: Ethan Wagner, Kara Szczublewski and Angela Belfiore, who won honorable mentions; and Lauren Rogus.

“I think the project is a fantastic educational opportunity for people of all ages and fields of study, not just political science,” Jensen said. “How an area is divided can have a huge impact on what happens in elections, which determines what happens - or doesn't - in that area later.”

Ford said, “The biggest takeaway from the competition is just how difficult it is to create a fair, balanced district. It was also interesting to see how in some circumstances, an oddly shaped district could end up being more competitive than a square or circular district. The best thing that came from the competition is the conversations that otherwise wouldn't have been had on such a large scope.”

None of the three said they had even the remotest sense that they could win, especially since their area of study is international relations. "I think it's a lesson that anyone can do this if they really focus and put their mind to it," said Lachinsky, whose said her interest  stemmed from the fact that she grew up as a member of an unpopular party in a starkly uncompetitive district, which she felt disempowered her at the polls. She said she was thrilled to participate in a project that allowed her to create a map that would make Pennsylvania more competitive.

“I am overjoyed to be second in the region for the collegiate level,” Jensen said. “Being recognized for hard work, especially for something you're passionate about, is always a good feeling.”

And for Ford, “Being able to collaborate on a meaningful project and having that hard work recognized on this level is one of the highlights of my collegiate experience.”

Morris, meanwhile, undertook the Draw the Lines challenge more as a learning opportunity for students than as a chance to win anything. Pennsylvania, he noted, is among the most gerrymandered states in the nation.

“The exercise was more about exposing the folly in the redistricting process and the nature of gerrymandering, where politicians have divided the map into political units, giving advantage to one party over the other,” Morris said.

The fact that so many Mercyhurst students emerged as contest winners is icing on the cake.

“I’ve been told Mercyhurst had more map entries and more winners than any other school in the state,” Morris said. “I think their success can be credited to their hard work, ingenuity and keen attention to the process.”