Taking what they acquired in the classroom into the world outside DePauw, four students from professor Kelsey Kauffman's "Prisons and Social Justice" seminar testified at the Putnam County Museum before the county commissioners Monday morning.
The students — Honor Scholars in Kauffman's class — made redistricting their primary concern. Every 10 years, in order to maintain approximately equal populations among electoral districts, both state and Congressional districts must be redrawn. This process ensures that each person's vote carries the same weight, no matter one's location.
Counting prisoners as part of a district's population, however, may create an imbalance in the number of voters in various districts — an imbalance that the students seek to resolve through their research.
"I've long held the belief that students produce some of their best research when they know that it's actually going to have an impact on real issues," Kauffman said.
Sophomore Brian Banta examined the constitutional mandates and relevant Supreme Court cases regarding redistricting. In addition to honing his public speaking skills, Banta said "I've learned a lot about taking things that involve law and precedent and turning that into something that's useful."
To delve into the issue on a personal level, the students visited the local prison to interact with the prisoners.
"It's easy to stereotype prisoners as something other, to cast them in a role that is less than human," said Banta, "so going was nice because it solidified the fact that these are people that we have living around us."
To help the students prepare to testify, David Bohmer and Larry Sutton, the heads of the Putnam County Democratic Party and the Republican Party, respectively, attended the students' class March 3.
"Even little things they talked about, like tone and how to dress up, prepared us for what it was going to be like on the day," said junior Shreeya Neupane.
Neupane focused her efforts on maps from DePauw's geographic information system (GIS) center. After examining the current maps of the surrounding districts, Neupane created improved maps for the existing districts based on raw population data provided by the 2010 Census.
The data shows discrepancies in the populations of districts, with Putnam County's voting District 1 containing fewer than 5,000 people and Greencastle Township's District 4 consisting of more than 13,000 people. The approximately 2,500 prisoners housed by Putnamville Correctional Facility, about 8.5 miles southwest of the DePauw campus, included into the population count contribute to the problem.
Taking their research and their suggestions, the students stood in front of the three commissioners to present their testimony with clarity.
Those in charge of redistricting have more information to consider when creating districts aimed to contain equal numbers of voting members. The students also hope that, due to their presentation, the commissioners will be disinclined to include non-voting prison populations that skew the data.
"Students are capable of doing work of sufficient quality and originality that they can affect public policy in responsible ways, and that's a part of what we try to do," Kauffman said.