Jesse Richardson, a senior at Waynesburg Central High School, won first place in the youth category of the West division for Draw the Lines PA’s latest contest. The contest ran from mid-September to mid-December 2018 and required contestants to separate the state into 18 voting districts in a way that solves gerrymandering.
“As long as there is gerrymandering, most people in America will never have the voice they deserve,” Richardson said. “This isn’t just some interest-group issue, it literally affects every single one of us.”
Draw the Lines PA is an education and advocacy organization for Pennsylvanians who want to end gerrymandering, which, according to its website, is the common practice of drawing election maps in a way that favors one political side.
“(Winning) gave me a real justification for the time I’d spent poring over maps and election results in the last two years. It meant that my ideas about what fair lines should be had real value according to people who really know their stuff, which I found very gratifying,” Richardson said. “It also meant the ability to perhaps give something back to my community. I plan to donate my winnings (a minimum of $500) to a local charity, preferably dealing with the opioid epidemic.”
Chris Satullo, director of Draw the Lines PA, said the general assembly hasn’t been getting the voting district map right for quite some time. He noted how the state supreme court deemed previous maps unconstitutional for reasons like splitting counties or municipalities when unnecessary.
He said Richardson’s entry stood out because of the confidence and knowledge he displayed.
“It was really interesting. His map looks different from a lot of the other winners,” Satullo said. “He is unusually well informed about government and politics for someone his age.”
Richardson said he first became interested in politics during the 2016 election.
“After a while I wasn’t just content to watch the results roll in on CNN,” he said. “I wanted to understand how these elections worked and why things happened the way they did. I started doing research into previous elections, demographics, campaign strategies. This naturally led to an interest in congressional elections and the issue of gerrymandering.”
Richardson prioritized competition in his map. He made districts as politically even as he could and, combined chunks of predominately Democratic Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with smaller, more Republican areas to evenly disperse the competition.
“(Politicians) will rarely be held accountable by their own party,” Richardson said. “So the best way to ensure accountability is to have as many representatives as possible from competitive districts, where they have to really listen to their constituents or risk losing reelection.”
According to Satullo, about 1,500 people used Draw the Lines PA’s DistrictBuilder program, which complied Census and voter registration data, to produce maps. Of over 2,700 maps, only 318 were entered in the contest.
“Some started maps and didn’t finish or created multiple maps to enter their best one. (Some students) were assigned maps for classes and never went onto enter the contest,” Satollu said. “(The) real statement that this is something ordinary people can have a hand at.”
Two hundred of the maps are already better than the map we currently have, Satullo said, and Draw the Lines PA is the largest mapping contest in the history of the US.
“Nobody else has ever gotten 318 citizens to complete this work,” Satullo said.
Richardson competed against nine other candidates in his division. Unlike most youth entrants, Richardson found the contest on his own, not through school. He said he was scrolling through Twitter and, when he saw a chance to win money for drawing congressional lines, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“A few hours later I clicked submit on my finalized map and essay,” he said.
Draw the Lines PA runs two contests a year, to coincide with school semesters as most entrants are students. The organization just launched a new contest, which is accepting entries through May 20, 2019. This time around applications must draw a 17-district map. Satullo is hopeful for even more participation and that anyone who has or will make a map will contact their local lawmaker and discuss gerrymandering. He said the goal of Draw the Lines PA is to show ordinary people they can understand and improve the mapping of voting districts.
Next week, Satullo said, Draw the Lines PA will release a guidebook for how to set up a productive meeting with a legislator. That, the new contest and other resources can be found at www.drawthelinespa.org.
“I’ve known for a while now that the end goal of my interest in politics is to run for office and eventually reach an office where I can effect real change, such as governor or senator,” Richardson said. “I think I’d start out with something small, like county commissioner, and then work my up through the State Legislature and into Congress. If I can convince my fellow Pennsylvanians to vote for these things, even in a pretty unimportant election, I’ll be a happy man.”