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Redistricting plan divides and conquers Native vote in Southwest Alaska

Bob Herron

As a member of the Alaska House of Representatives from the Lower Kuskokwim River/Kuskokwim Bay election district in western Alaska consisting of 28 communities under the 2002 Benchmark Plan (House District 38), I offer the following comments on the redistricting journey.

Given the hue and cry from other areas of the state on the Interim Plan, how should my hometown react to being in the Interim Plan House District 37?

Consider Bethel’s immediate area within this newest plan.

Within a 25-mile radius, all nine villages will be in the Interim Plan House District 36 (a different district). So, the next closest “connecting” community to Bethel will require a jump out of the middle of the radius to Eek, 40 miles away! Then from Eek to Adak is the rest of HD 37.

Is this plan fair to both the Lower Kuskokwim and the Aleutian Peninsula/Chain?

With that understanding, I want to make sure you hear, from my home address, how the board’s preclearance request submission will impact Southwest Alaska.

As a 40-year resident of the remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where our resident population is approximately 80 percent Alaska Native, the process by which the board arrived at the April 5 plan was, and ultimately is, detrimental to the voters of Southwest Alaska.

Whether or not this most recent plan complies with the letter of VRA law, I can assure you that, from my constituents’ clearly focused eyes, it does not comply with the spirit of the law.

Take, for example, the current proposed legislative district in which I live (HD 37), and that of my fellow House incumbent in proposed HD 36. According to documents published by the Alaska Redistricting Board, HD 37’s Alaska Native VAP (ANVAP) falls sharply to 42.97 percent, while proposed HD 36’s ANVAP climbs dramatically to 81.13 percent. Essentially and inextricably, the percentages and communities were flipped between the two incumbents and without a coherent explanation.

These changes are accomplished primarily by the board’s reshuffling of communities between the two district groupings in a manner that makes no practical sense — many communities in each new grouping share no significant economic, social, cultural, or even transportation route links. For any candidate from the new HD 37 Kuskokwim area communities to travel via commercial flight to visit and work with prospective HD 37 constituents in the Aleutian peninsula and island chain, that candidate will have to fly from Bethel to Anchorage and out into the Aleutian Chain. For any candidate from the proposed HD 36 and the Bristol Bay region to visit constituents along the Kuskokwim River, they will have to fly from Dillingham to Anchorage, through Bethel, and then on.

On the socio-economic front, many of the communities in the proposed new districts not only do not share interests — they hold competing interests. It makes no sense to break apart two current districts that are well formed in respect to day-to-day living commonalities, and replace them with two districts in which no legislator, incumbent or new, can possibly serve fairly or even access without incurring thousands of dollars in air travel expenses.

More succinctly, the Bethel hub community is stripped of nearly all of its nearby and interdependent communities within a 100-mile radius.

Then, we are expected to be part of a set of communities very close to the Bristol Bay hub of Dillingham that are 165 miles to the south and then to yet another of set of villages spread along 1,700 miles out to the end of the Aleutian Chain. Again, swapping Native voters and non-Native voters and their respective percentages with a similar ending VRA percent ending balance.

I am very concerned about the long-term effect of the proposed interim plan upon future benchmarks, Alaska Native voting strength, and Yup’ik people in particular. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (i.e. the Wade Hampton and Bethel Census Districts) comprises the highest concentration of Native people in the state of Alaska. The Native population of the Y-K Delta is overwhelmingly Yupik Eskimo, with a clear common identity, language, history and socio-economic interests. Those common interests are recognized under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which accordingly placed the majority of the Y-K Delta communities in the Calista region.

However, under the proposed Interim Plan, the Y-K Delta is fractured into three House Districts. In particular, the Interim Plan for House Districts 36, 37 and 38 “divides and conquers” the Y-K Yup’ik population.

Interim HD 38 is 45.72 percent Alaska Native voting age population (VAP), while Interim HD 37 is only 42.97 percent Alaska Native VAP. In the senate, these two districts are combined to form Interim Senate District S, which has only 44.24 percent Alaska Native VAP. At these levels, it may prove difficult for the Alaska Native voters of the Y-K Delta to have a meaningful ability to elect a candidate of their choice in the upcoming 2012 elections in any or all three districts.

Of course, the inability of the Alaska Redistricting Board to develop a final plan before the 2012 election means that a final plan for this decade will be developed after the 2012 election.

But in the meantime, as an example, the nearby village of Akiachak, potentially, could be represented by three different legislators from three different election districts within four years: House District 38, today; House District 36, Interim Plan; House District #?, future Final Plan.

If Native-preferred candidates are not elected out of the Interim House Districts 36, 37, 38 and Senate District S in the 2012 elections, it is entirely possible that Native-effective districts in the Benchmark Final Plan will be reduced by one or two House districts and/or one Senate district.

The resulting possible reduction of Native protected districts would be devastating to the continued ability of Alaska Native people in general, and Yupik people specifically, to meaningfully participate in the state electoral and legislative process after the 2012 elections. In summary, the use of the interim plan in a two-step process will only serve to dilute the voting strength of Native people long past the 2012 elections.

It is my strong opinion that this was a flawed mapping process — and the end result is that it gerrymanders and pits the interests of different communities and regions against each other and their respective Alaska Natives against other Alaska Natives in western and southwestern Alaska.

To quote someone who is familiar on the subject of redistricting ­— with a question mark and a single word — “abhorrent?”

Bob Herron (D-Bethel) has represented House District 38, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, in the Alaska Legislature since 2008.

The preceding commentary was first published in The Tundra Drums and is republished here with the author's permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.