RICHMOND — When Brian Cannon, a third-year student at William and Mary Law School, sat down to try to best Virginia’s politicians at coming up with fair, common-sense congressional districts, his first instinct was to try to do it the way they do: He started with the state’s existing map.

Trying to align each of the commonwealth’s sprawling congressional districts — drawn for partisan advantage in 2001 — to new population figures from the 2010 Census, he lopped counties off districts that had more people than they should. And he squeezed new territory into districts that were too small, all in an effort to meet the Constitution’s requirement that each district be about the same size.

But he quickly grew frustrated.

“They’ve been so gerrymandered over the years,” he said. “It was impossible to do in a way that genuinely meets the criteria without starting from scratch.”

Cannon and fellow law school students at William and Mary decided they had to take a fresh look at the maps, without regard to incumbency, to come up with new districts.

Cannon and his team were one of six groups that won cash prizes Tuesday in different categories for Virginia’s first redistricting contest, in which 150 college students on 13 Virginia campuses competed to draw the most compact legislative districts that best respected community boundaries.

The competition is one prong of a public campaign to try to persuade the politicians in charge of the redistricting effort to draw maps that aren’t designed to protect incumbents or enhance partisan advantage.

The other is a bipartisan advisory commission established by Gov. Robert F. Mc­Don­nell (R) that will make recommendations next week to the General Assembly about the process.

Public power

The two efforts come ahead of a special legislative session that will open April 4, when the General Assembly will take on its once-a-decade task of drawing new legislative boundaries.

“For the first time ever, there’s going to be something to compare their maps to,” said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy and a director of the contest. “It’s just going to be really hard for the General Assembly to approve maps that protect” incumbents, Kidd said.

Ten years ago, expensive computer software let politicians predict demographics and voting behavior at a precinct level, giving them sophisticated power to try to draw districts to their partisan advantage. But now that software is available to the public.

Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University and a leader of a project to make redistricting software more publicly available, said it gives voters unprecedented power.

Politicians “no longer control this agenda in the way that they have in the past,” he said.

‘An independent look’

It’s not clear how much impact the pressure campaign will have on Virginia’s process.

Leaders in the Democratic-held Senate and GOP-held House of Delegates have been working behind the scenes on plans to redraw the state legislature. They plan to make them public and submit them for legislative review next week, then hold public hearings about them across the state.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) has said his goal is to strengthen Democratic seats in the chamber, where his party holds a slim majority.

Senators say they also have been given a plan by the state’s 11 U.S. representatives that has received bipartisan sign-off from its eight Republicans and three Democrats.

That plan is under close scrutiny, said state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), chairwoman of the Senate committee in charge of redistricting.

“We’re going to give it an independent look,” she said.

The need for speed

Barring disagreements, the new maps could be approved by the General Assembly and submitted to Mc­Don­nell for his review in early to mid-April.

Legislators say they have little choice but a lightning-fast process: Virginia is one of nine states that must submit its plans for approval to the U.S. Department of Justice under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to ensure they do not dilute the power of black voters.

It is also one of only four states that will hold legislative elections this fall, meaning the process must be completed quickly, or November elections could be disrupted.

“It’s going to look rushed,” Howell said. “That’s because it is rushed. If you look at the time frames we’re under, there are virtually no options.”

Because of the need for speed, the legislature might prioritize consensus plans — probably ones that protect incumbents — particularly because the maps this year must be approved by a divided legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

But the students who participated in the college competition said the experience has empowered them to push for more input, including a possible veto from the governor if the legislature adopts new maps designed to protect officeholders.

Hena Naghmi, 21, a student at the University of Virginia, said the General Assembly should look closely at the state Senate map her team drew up, which would maximize African American voting power by increasing the number of districts where black voters hold a majority from five to six.

“The General Assembly needs to take that into account,” she said. “And I’m willing to fight if they don’t.”