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Alaska's puzzling redistricting proposals

Patti Epler
Map by Alaskans for Fair Redistricting
Courtesy: Alaskans for Fair Redistricting
Alaskans for Fair Redistricting has located incumbents on the redistricting board's proposed map to show how where voters might lose their lawmaker under these plans. This is Board Option 1 for Anchorage.
Courtesy: AFFR
Alaskans for Fair Redistricting has located incumbents on the redistricting board's proposed map to show how where voters might lose their lawmaker under these plans. This is Board Option 2 for Anchorage.
Courtesy: AFFR
Alaskans for Fair Redistricting has located incumbents on the redistricting board's proposed map to show how where voters might lose their lawmaker under these plans. This is the Board Option for Fairbanks.
Courtesy: AFFR
Mat-Su Borough: Alaskans for Fair Redistricting has located incumbents on the redistricting board's proposed map to show how where voters might lose their lawmaker under these plans.
Courtesy: AFFR

Most people probably couldn't tell you the boundaries of their legislative districts, the local political geography that dictates where you vote and who you vote for.

But pretty much everybody knows who their state senator and representative are. And for many Alaskans, especially in Anchorage and Fairbanks, their elected officials could soon change as incumbents are assigned new districts under proposals being considered by the state redistricting board.

The politicians aren't moving. But the boundaries are being redrawn around them as the board tries to account for population shifts, and critics say, political power plays.

Two statewide options being floated by the Republican-dominated Alaska Redistricting Board dramatically change the lines in Anchorage, shifting boundaries so that incumbent Democrats would be running against each other in several districts or against incumbent Republicans in others.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Rep. Pete Petersen, two Democrats who represent Muldoon and Russian Jack, are bumped out of their district by mere blocks, and shifted so far east that most of their constituency would be in in Eagle River and out along Knik Arm.

Generally, Republicans fare much better under the plans, although in one option two longtime GOP senators, Charlie Huggins and Linda Menard, would be pitted against each other in the Matanuska Valley, and Lesil McGuire and Kevin Meyer would be against each other South Anchorage.

View a poster-sized map of Alaska's proposed redistricting plans

Black lines in the maps below indicate current districts. Colored sections are proposed new districts.

Most of those closely following the process -- and even drawing their own maps -- are deeply puzzled by the board's proposals and say there is no reason for such abrupt changes in the urban areas. Testimony at dozens of hearings throughout the state in recent weeks has been heavily against the proposals, with many residents questioning why communities are being torn apart for no obvious reason.

The board is holding a statewide teleconference Friday where beginning at 9 a.m. five groups plan to present what they think are better plans. In the afternoon, the board will take public testimony in what is the last public hearing on the draft proposals. The deadline for public comment is May 13, and on May 16 the board will begin drawing its final plan in open session at its Anchorage office. The plan must be finished by June 4 and submitted to the U.S. Justice Department for approval. It's expected to be challenged in court, as every redistricting plan has been, because political control of the state is at stake.

Legislative redistricting happens every 10 years after the census produces a new statewide population. Alaska gained more than 80,000 new residents in the last decade and now has a population of 710,231. Split between 40 legislative districts, that means each district needs 17,755 residents or as close to that number as possible.

For weeks, the Alaska Redistricting Board -- along with a number of interested groups, boroughs and cities -- have been using specialized computer programs to reconfigure the district boundaries. Equal population is perhaps the most important factor, but in Alaska making sure Native voters aren't being shortchanged is just as important. The state currently has nine districts that are either Native majority or Native "influence" -- at least 35 percent Native population -- and the Voting Rights Act prohibits slipping from that unless "retrogression" is unavoidable.

Beyond that, the Alaska Constitution mandates that districts be contiguous -- so two neighboring House districts make up one Senate District -- compact, which generally means they should have smooth edges and regular shapes without weird looking pieces cut out for no real reason, and that they are relatively integrated socio-economically.

Intense politics and rife suspicion drive the redistricting process from beginning to end. Both Republicans and Democrats are convinced the other party is out to gain as much political ground as it can and by any means it can.

The board members are chosen mainly by politicians, which means this year four of the five board members are longtime GOP party members, chosen by Gov. Sean Parnell, House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Gary Stevens, all Republicans. The fifth member is a registered Democrat and was picked by Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti. Ten years ago, Democrat Tony Knowles was governor and the board was dominated by Democrats.

Then, it was the Republicans who blasted the process.

Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich still seethes over the political losses he thinks his party suffered because of the way the legislative lines were drawn, allowing political advantage to Democrats. This year, he says, the process is "about a tenth as bad as it was 10 years ago."

Still, Ruedrich has been critical of the board's proposed options mainly because he doesn't like that the lines don't reflect natural geographic or political boundaries. For instance, a plan offered by the GOP-backed Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, tends to use the creeks that run through Anchorage, its lakes and major roadways as the borders of districts. Beyond that, Ruedrich says his plan tries to honor Anchorage Assembly districts and community council boundaries that are already organized based on similar community characteristics and cohesive neighborhoods. He also doesn't like the Senate pairings that pit Republican against Republican in some areas.

Protecting incumbents is considered a valid guideline in the redistricting process which recognizes that residents are better served by elected officials who have worked the communities and gotten to know the issues. However, it's not a mandatory guideline and the Alaska Redistricting Board decided early on not to factor incumbents into their maps.

Few people following the process believe that, however, including Ruedrich. He says he hopes the board listens to the testimony of citizens at the hearings. "I look forward to the board drawing better maps that more reflect the opinions and views of those who have testified," he said, "and that are less incumbent-driven."

The Alaska Democratic Party also has submitted a plan as part of a group calling itself the Rights Coalition. Deborah Williams, executive director of the party and a public face of the Rights Coalition, insists the plan did not take incumbents into account and that she doesn't know how Democrats fare under the Rights plan.

"We think the best way to win this battle is to produce the best map," Williams said of ensuring political equality for Democrats in a Republican-driven process. That map needs to comply with federal law and the state constitutional requirements, she added.

To that end, the Rights plan follows borough boundaries for the most part, breaking those borders only a couple of times to accommodate Southeast Alaska, which lost population, and in a couple other areas of the state. The plan also closely adheres to population numbers in urban areas. For instance, Anchorage's population means it gets 16.4 legislative districts, so the Rights plan gives Anchorage 16 districts, plus a 17th that includes part of South Anchorage and picks up the remainder from the northern part of the Kenai Peninsula.

Other plans short Anchorage a district by stretching more into the Matanuska Valley than the population numbers warrant.

The Rights plan also has figured a way to maintain the Native voting strength required by the Justice Department by the way it configures Western Alaska. Currently, a Senate "influence" district starts in Southeast Alaska and sweeps up and around through the Interior in a huge district. Redistricting plan authors were having trouble keeping that influence district because Southeast lost population and the new district needed to be added to the Mat Valley area. The board's options pair an Interior/Mat Valley district with Sitka, or possibly Ketchikan with Seward.

Critics of the board's proposals say it's not necessary to change the current lines as much as the board did in order to retain the Native districts while still recognizing the growth in the Matanuska Valley and Fairbanks. In Anchorage, they say, the current legislative districts didn’t need much tweaking at all.

But under the board's proposals, many of the two dozen lawmakers in the Anchorage Bowl -- nearly half the Legislature -- would be put into very different political worlds than the ones they've been serving.

The Wielechowski-Petersen situation is perhaps the most dramatic, and residents of the eastern Muldoon area the two now serve were especially troubled to find they would be a part of Eagle River. Several testified at earlier hearings that they couldn’t understand why the board would splinter their community that way.

But other areas of the city would see substantial change in their representation, too. Democratic Rep. Sharon Cissna's neighborhood just east of Lake Otis Parkway would be carved out and put in the same district as Rep. Les Gara, another Democrat who lives west of L Street. Democratic Reps. Mike Doogan, a Spenard resident, and Berta Gardner, of Midtown, would be in the same district. Rep. Chris Tuck, an East Dimond Democrat, would see his boundary move just a few blocks east, putting him in the political territory of Republican Rep. Mia Costello, who lives much further west in Sand Lake.

Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a nonpartisan coalition of Native groups, unions and individuals, was deeply involved in writing the plan that was adopted in 2001 and is in place today, has been tracking the incumbency factor and has produced maps that show where incumbents live, the current district boundaries and the board's proposed boundaries. The maps, available on the AFFR website, show the seemingly slight shifts that nudge an incumbent into another area, and group districts so that senators are pitted against each other.

Vince Beltrami and Joelle Hall, both Alaska AFL-CIO officials who are part of AFFR, say there's no explanation but political gerrymandering. Other plans, including the GOP group as well as their own, don't cut around incumbents in Anchorage, Fairbanks or the Matanuska Valley.

Hall said the board's options ignore the relationship that voters have developed with their representatives over the years.

Hall and Beltrami point to the relative political balance in the Legislature, and especially the even split between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, as evidence that the current plan worked well and shouldn’t be dramatically revised unnecessarily.

The notion of a fair split in the Senate is one that doesn't sit well with Ruedrich, the GOP party chair.

"What does that have to do with fair?" he asked. Fair would be if the makeup of the Legislature followed the registration trends in Alaska where Republicans outnumber Democrats and the undeclared voters also trend in about the same percentages.

"The 10-10 Senate split does not reflect Alaska's political alignment," Ruedrich argues.

The board's Anchorage proposal was initially drawn in early April in a public session in Anchorage that saw board member Bob Brodie of Kodiak manipulating the boundaries. His maps kept Wielechowski and Petersen where they are, for instance, and did not disrupt the incumbents to nay great extent, according to blogs posted at the time and a picture of the map as he drew it taken by people in the audience on their cell-phone cameras.

But the next day, when Brodie was absent, chairman John Torgerson produced another plan that he said had been redrawn by staff because of problems involving the city boundaries. The four remaining board members voted in Brodie's absence to adopt the plan, and minutes of the meetings reflect that he wasn't told it had been changed and didn’t know they voted without him.

Ron Miller, executive director of the board, said this week the Anchorage plan was redrawn by staff at Torgerson's request. But, he said, it was aired in a public session and adopted publicly.

He didn’t know specifically why it ended up the way it did, other than the Brodie plan didn't follow the board's guidelines about how to handle the northern and southern city boundaries. He said the board asked the staff to "clean up some of the lines" which they did and gave it back to the board the next day.

Miller insists the board has never asked for incumbents addresses or considered where they live. He doesn't believe gerrymandering had anything to do with it.

"This is all a numbers game," he said, adding that the board and staff have worked hard to ensure that there is little deviation in population between legislative districts in Anchorage.

"These are draft plans," Miller emphasized. "Don’t be surprised if you see substantial changes in these plans."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.