Democrats blame redistricting for loss of blue seats in legislature

Les Gara
Anchorage Representative Les Gara (standing) speaks on the House floor last year. On Tuesday he and other House Democrats criticized the state’s redistricting process, which cut the number of blue seats in the legislature. Photo courtesy Alaska House Democratic Caucus.

Democrats in the Alaska Legislature say the state’s redistricting process is flawed and needs to be made more nonpartisan.

The party currently holds just 14 seats in the forty-member House and seven in the twenty-member Senate, down from 16 and ten last year. Rural Democrats in both chambers caucus with the Republican-led majorities, leaving the minority caucuses with just ten Representative and five Senators.

Anchorage Representative Les Gara says gerrymandering in the state’s redistricting process led to the loss of Democratic seats in the Alaska Legislature.

“We had a Republican dominated Redistricting Board that gerrymandered the state in a way to get rid of roughly a dozen Democrats,” he said Tuesday at a press conference on the opening day of the Alaska Legislature.

“It was inside political people trying to cheat the system and take away the people’s right to one-person-one-vote.”

The Redistricting Board is formed every ten years to redraw Alaska’s political boundaries based on the latest U.S. Census. Two members are appointed by the Governor, and one each by the Senate President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. The panel assembled in 2010 included four Republicans and one non-affiliated member.

Chairman John Torgerson – a former Republican state lawmaker – says Gara is entitled to his opinion. But Torgerson believes the process was the most open in state history.

“We had I don’t know how many hours of public testimony. We had public hearings all over the state,” Torgerson said. “The board did its due diligence and did its work.”

House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula of Juneau thinks the legislature needs to figure out a non-partisan way to do redistricting.

“It’s needed to happen for a long time,” she said. “Both parties, everybody needs to stand back. We need to figure out what the best way to do this is. There are states that seem to work and we need to study those and get up and going. This shouldn’t be happening.”

Kerttula says the current system has hurt legislative debate by giving one party a super-majority in both chambers. She also says she feels bad for communities like Petersburg, which ended up in her district, got pulled out of it, then put back in due to various court challenges over the Redistricting Board’s plans.

“Petersburg felt like a ping pong ball going back and forth,” she said. “I absolutely love Petersburg and relate very well to the people there. But I don’t blame them. I think it was a tough year for them.”

Torgerson says he doesn’t know how the state could do redistricting in a more nonpartisan manner.

The Alaska Supreme Court has ordered the board to redraw the state’s legislative boundaries again for the 2014 election. The board is asking the court to reconsider that decision.

The court previously ruled the board failed to properly adhere to the Alaska Constitution in drawing its district maps, but it allowed the state to use a temporary plan for last year’s elections.

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