Redistricting Board finds court mandate difficult to apply

Superior Court ruling puts state, federal law at odds, board says

Associated PressMarch 13, 2012 

An attorney for the Alaska Redistricting Board acknowledged Tuesday that a proposed new election district plan may be out of strict compliance with the Alaska Constitution but said the board had little choice for it to pass federal review.

The migration of rural residents to urban districts over the past decade meant rural districts had to be combined with residents of some urban districts, attorney Michael White told the five justices of the Alaska Supreme Court.

In proposed House District 38, the board combined traditionally Democratic neighborhoods west of the University of Alaska Fairbanks with rural areas that stretch 600 miles west to Hooper Bay on the Bering Sea. The board could have mixed rural residents with people from Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, he said, but it would have simply moved the problem to another area.

"You'd still be here," White said. "You'd just have a different set of plaintiffs."

White urged justices to overturn a decision handed down last month by Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy, who ordered the board to redraw three Fairbanks-area House districts, including District 38, and one that split the Aleutian Islands.

House District 38 would include Ester and the Goldstream Valley, communities that over decades have been combined with other neighborhoods closely tied with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Voters have traditionally elected Democratic candidates, most recently Rep. David Guttenberg.

McConahy ruled that the new District 38 violated the constitutional requirement of socio-economic integration.

The judge determined that House Districts 1 and 2, stretching from Fairbanks south to North Pole and Eielson Air Force Base, were not compact, and that no federal Voting Rights Act justification had been offered for deviating from that Alaska Constitution requirement in District 2, covering southeast Fairbanks, North Pole and Eielson.

House District 37 as drawn by the board, combines the western Aleutians with a portion of southwest Alaska stretching from Bethel to the Bering Sea coast. McConahy ruled that proposed district violated constitutional requirements for compactness and contiguity.

Attorney Michael Walleri, speaking for the plaintiffs in the appeal, said the redistricting board began its process with the premise that the Alaska Constitution would take a back seat to the federal law, which is designed to protect the rights of minority voters. The plan needed at least nine districts in which a Native or Native-backed candidate was likely to be elected to maintain seats held by those candidates after the 2000 redistricting. Under the federal voting rights law, the plan cannot weaken the Alaska Native community's ability to elect candidates of their choosing.

The plaintiffs who sued for changes in the plan did not make a gerrymandering claim but said it was flawed in part on the board's procedures. Walleri said the board should have begun its work making a plan that met state constitutional standards and then made adjustments to comply with federal law, if necessary.

Walleri said the board rejected other redistricting maps that were constitutional and in compliance with federal law.

White disputed that. The board's plan won preclearance and alternatives submitted to the board were not likely to do so, he said.

Alaska gained 83,299 residents between 2000 and 2010, bringing its total population to 710,231. The ideal district size identified by the redistricting board for a House district was 17,755 people. Senate districts consist of two House districts.

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