Alaska Redistricting Board’s first drafts draw criticism and alternate plans

This draft map was one of two prepared by the state Redistricting Board. The board has since revised the drafts and will be holding 20 meetings around Alaska over the next seven weeks. (Screen capture of Redistricting Board site)
This draft map was one of two prepared by the state Redistricting Board. The board has since revised the drafts and will be holding 20 meetings around Alaska over the next seven weeks to solicit feedback before adopting a final map. (Screen capture of Redistricting Board site)

Every 10 years, states redraw their political district maps to keep them up-to-date with shifts in population, as reflected in the census. In Alaska, a five-member redistricting board draws the map. And where the board draws the lines will have big implications on who gets elected. 

The process kicked off earlier this month when the Redistricting Board produced two draft maps. And they drew a lot of criticism during public testimony at a board meeting on Friday. 

Anchorage resident Emily Becker was among the critics. 

“Despite your claims to be apolitical, both of these versions seem really nakedly political, with some very odd zigs and zags that just so happen to put bipartisan majority members against each other,” she said.

Others repeatedly pointed out what Becker called zigs and zags — like in Juneau, where a draft district line dips into Democratic Rep. Andi Story’s Auke Bay neighborhood and puts her house in the same district as fellow Democratic Rep. Sara Hannan. 

In one draft, the bulk of the downtown Anchorage district currently represented by Zack Fields added not only the neighborhood immediately south of downtown, but also extended to the west, in the process including the homes of Harriet Drummond and Matt Claman — like Fields, all Democratic representatives. The same map put Democratic Reps. Ivy Spohnholz and Liz Snyder in the same district. 

The map doesn’t have any Republicans who would have to share districts like this.

If the board adopts a final map that’s similar to this draft, it could wind up in court. And the courts will be holding the map up against the standards in the Alaska Constitution. It says districts have to be compact and contiguous — so that all of the parts are next to other parts — and contain as much as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area. 

Peter Torkelson is the board’s top staff member and a former aide to the state Senate’s mostly Republican majority. He said the process that went into the draft maps wasn’t political. 

“We did not include any political data in this conversation,” he said. “It’s blind to election results, to party, registration, statistics and to incumbent locations. It’s just not on the map, and in my experience, it played absolutely no factor in any of the maps that have been brought forward to date.”

Three of the five board members were appointed by Republicans — Gov. Mike Dunleavy picked former aide Bethany Marcum of Anchorage, who once served as an aide when Dunleavy was in the state Senate. Marcum suggested the Anchorage draft that combines five Democrats in two districts. Dunleavy also appointed E. Budd Simpson, a Juneau lawyer. And former Senate President Cathy Giessel chose Fairbanks businessman John Binkley, a former legislator who’s serving as the board chair. 

Former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent and former Democrat, appointed Anchorage resident Nicole Borromeo, the executive vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives. Former Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger named Melanie Bahnke, president and CEO of the Nome-based regional nonprofit Kawerak. 

The process allows for outside groups to submit their own maps, which the public can weigh in on and the board can consider. 

While many legislators will be keeping an eye on the process, Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich is more involved than most — not only has he served as an expert witness in court in previous redistricting cycles, his caucus drew up its own proposed map

Begich said the board’s draft maps had unnecessarily high differences between the populations in urban districts, as well as within Southeast Alaska. 

“I’m not sure why that is,” he said. “So I think a better map can be drawn, and I think that’s what the board is looking for. And so I’m hopeful that through the process a better map will be drawn.”

The state Supreme Court in past rulings set up a process where the board must first draw a map that first meets the requirements of the state constitution before taking into account the federal Voting Rights Act. 

The Voting Rights Act has required the state to submit its map for forty years to the U.S. Department of Justice, due to the state’s history of discrimination against Alaska Native voters. This will be the first time in several decades that Alaska won’t have to do that, due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated portions of the law. 

Begich noted that the federal government is working on new ways to enforce voting rights, given the court’s ruling. So the state will still have to ensure that it doesn’t violate the federal law. 

“It’s important,” he said. “It’s less important because of the federal changes than it was.”

Other groups proposed their own maps. It’s a complicated undertaking.  Any time one boundary changes, it can force a cascading set of changes on other districts. And it can be challenging to defend those changes. 

Randy Ruedrich has experience working on maps. He’s a former Alaska Republican Party chairman who is affiliated with a group that’s submitted its own map, Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting. 

Like Begich, Ruedrich emphasized that the state will be in a stronger legal position if it keeps district population sizes as close as possible.

But his group drew a very different map than the Senate Democrats. For example, he tried to make a case for including a heavily Republican portion of the Kenai Peninsula Borough in the same district as part of South Anchorage. 

“To balance our population, we go back to the 1984 map — where the Supreme Court approved the use of South Anchorage and North Kenai shore, as both being oil industry-affiliated areas … as an adequately socioeconomically integrated district.”

Other third-party groups have submitted their own maps.

They include a group affiliated with organized labor, public interest and Alaska Native organizations, Alaskans for Fair Redistricting. Joelle Hall serves as the group’s chair.  She is also the leader of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state’s labor union federation.

Hall said her group would like to see a map that both maintains neighborhood lines in urban areas and that keeps election outcomes uncertain. 

“The goal is to create a map that is competitive,” she said. “We think Alaskans are best-served when the fate of a district is not a foregone conclusion, where there’s a competition for ideas that’s available in each district.”

One of the draft maps keeps five districts in the Fairbanks North Star Borough that have larger populations than the statewide average. Democrats in that region also said that it combines areas that have nothing in common. 

Some groups proposing their own maps are seeking to keep all of the rural Alaska Native communities in the Interior in the same district, something that the state’s current legislative map doesn’t do. 

They include a coalition of Alaska Native regional corporations Doyon Limited and Ahtna Incorporated along with Tanana Chiefs Conference, Fairbanks Native Association and Sealaska. The coalition’s map combines the Interior villages with a portion of the Fairbank North Star Borough. 

Doyon Senior Vice President Sarah Obed said the coalition tried to balance many factors. 

“Our map represents our best effort to bring these different needs and interests together,” Obed said. 

The board will be taking its own revised draft maps as well as some of those proposed by other groups to 20 public meetings around Alaska, seeking public feedback before it adopts a final map later this fall. But that doesn’t ensure that the board’s final map will remain the legislative map for the next 10 years. The courts may require that it be rewritten based on legal challenges. 

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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