Our View: We need a better way to draw election lines

June 6, 2013 

The Alaska Redistricting Board meets again Friday. Board members plan to get an update on legal issues and set a schedule for coming up with a redistricting plan that passes muster with the Alaska Constitution.

There are two points to make here, one for the short term and one for keeps.

• It's too late for this board. They've had their chances. It's time to heed opponents of the redistricting plan who have said they'll ask the state Supreme Court to appoint independent masters to draw a new plan.

As Fairbanks state Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy pointed out last month in an advisory opinion, the current redistricting board has had several years to come up with a constitutional plan -- and has failed. The 2012 state elections were held with an interim plan that the Supreme Court found flawed, but by the time they could make a ruling the board was out of time to set things right before the election season.

After the 2012 elections, the Supreme Court tossed the redistricting plan as unconstitutional and told the board to start from scratch. Instead of following those marching orders, the board slow-rolled with requests for clarifications, until the high court said in April that it meant what it said in its December ruling.

The Supreme Court's instructions were clear. The board had gone about its business the wrong way, turning upside down the precedent for redistricting called the "Hickel plan," which the court established in the early 1990s. By that plan, a redistricting board is, first, to draw election boundaries according to the Alaska Constitution. Only then, if those lines need to be modified to satisfy the federal Voting Rights Act, should modification follow -- and then only enough to meet federal standards.

The board has hemmed and hawed and made excuses -- Chairman John Torgerson argued that it was waiting on a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a Voting Rights Act challenge. But both the courts and the board's challengers have pointed out that the board's marching orders have nothing to do with the Voting Rights Act. The board needs to come up with plan that satisfies the Alaska Constitution, and worry about the federal law later.

Opponents have said the board has dragged its feet in the hope that the current districts will stand for the 2014 elections. And McConahy bluntly said the board's plans for an August start and a possible lack of public hearings have made this group unworthy of trust. He's right.

Suspicion and mistrust are natural in a process that by its nature is partisan. Republicans hold a 4-1 advantage on this board and the lines it drew made all but certain a Republican majority in the state Senate. What looks even more partisan is its foot-dragging response to orders from the state Supreme Court.

• That leads to the second point. Let's take the partisanship out of this process and create a more independent redistricting board law, for boards that have no eye to the results of the next election but aim to draw districts that abide by the Alaska Constitution first. Force of law should make these boards beholden only to the constitution and the people of Alaska.

That won't be an easy process, but several lawmakers have proposed bills to get us started.

Republicans have steered this board, but Democrats have played the same game when they've had the chance. You rig the lines to suit your party. Redistricting will be that way until Alaskans say no more, it's time to do this a better way.

We need a board that will draw clean lines without fear or favor -- and meet its constitutional obligations in a timely manner. That's not what we have now.

BOTTOM LINE: It's time for Alaska to overhaul redistricting.

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