New Alaska legislative district maps to be unveiled

rmauer@adn.comJune 27, 2013 

A dizzying number of redistricting maps will make their first official appearances at a public hearing Friday in Anchorage, with the Alaska Redistricting Board suggesting it would entertain even more options on how to split the state into legislative districts.

The board plans to present its own seven drafts at the hearing along with five others submitted by individuals and groups, including a plan and a revision supplied by an organization affiliated with Republican Party officials. State Democrats have not produced their own map, but they've analyzed how the board plans would affect current officeholders and found that most tend to hurt incumbent Republicans more than Democrats.

And if 12 plans plus two revisions are not enough, board attorney Michael N. White said the board would accept more suggested plans if they're brought up during the public hearing in Anchorage Friday and in Fairbanks and Juneau next week.

"They just really wanted to make sure that they looked at all different options, see what people can do," White said Thursday. "The idea behind public input is, somebody comes up with a better way to build a better mousetrap, we're certainly not adverse to looking at that."

But Democrats remain deeply suspicious of the board, which is 4-1 Republican. Democrats say the board's interim plan, used for the 2012 election even though it had been ruled unconstitutional, was partly to blame for losses they suffered at the polls that resulted in one-party Republican rule in Juneau.

Republicans now outnumber Democrats in the Legislature nearly two to one, but it's even worse than that for Democrats. Enough Democrats have jumped to Republican-led coalitions running both chambers that the Democratic minorities could lose all committee assignments and most staff if the 2014 election turns out badly for them.

Zack Fields, spokesman for the Alaska Democratic Party, said the large number of choices from the Redistricting Board make public comment almost meaningless.

"Anytime you do a map, there are trade-offs, especially when you're trying to have some degree of contiguity, and communities of interest. Why not lay that out from the start and let the public comment on it? Instead, what they've done is say, 'Hey, anything is possible,' " said Fields. "It's sort of like a bureaucratic pathology -- present so many options that in the end you can ignore all the public comments and just do whatever you wanted to do from the start."

The hearing is scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Anchorage Legislative Office, 716 W. Fourth Ave.

Every 10 years, a new Redistricting Board is convened to redraw the state's 40 House Districts based on population shifts that were documented in the U.S. Census, with the idea that each district should have roughly the same population. (With two House seats for each Senate seat, the board's map also affects the upper chamber.) The Alaska Constitution requires districts to be compact, contiguous and of similar socioeconomic status.

The board produced new districts in 2012, but the Alaska Supreme Court ruled they were unconstitutional because the board took the U.S. Voting Rights Act into consideration ahead of the Alaska Constitution. This time around, with the U.S. Supreme Court having thrown out a critical part of the Voting Rights Act this week, complying with federal law becomes much simpler, White said.

Each of the seven board plans has its own effects on future elections. Fields said the Democratic Party mapped the official residences of all 60 incumbent legislators and merged that information with the board's maps.

In the case of the board's Option A draft, two incumbent Anchorage Republican House members would be paired against each other (Bob Lynn and Mike Hawker), as would two Anchorage House Democrats (Les Gara and Harriet Drummond). Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, would be paired with Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka.

Option B could be trouble for Republicans, pairing Rep. Dan Saddler with Rep. Bill Stoltze, Eric Feige with Shelley Hughes, Hawker with Lynn, and Wasilla Sen. Mike Dunleavy with Sen. Charlie Huggins, Fields said. Another map, Option D, would put four Republican House members in the same Mat-Su area district, Fields said.

White said the maps were drawn "without preconceptions" and without reference to sitting legislators. The mapping software used by the board contains features like population, municipal boundaries and rivers that can be overlaid to visualize possible districts.

"There's a layer you can provide that puts in the incumbent locations into the maps -- they didn't even turn that on. It was not a consideration in doing their draft plans," White said.

Randy Ruedrich, the former chairman of the Alaska Republican Party and a master of data management, said an organization he's led, Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, has turned in its own map, as it did before the 2012 election. That map, and a recent revision, are so similar to the interim 2012 map that no incumbent would face another incumbent, Ruedrich said.

House members normally are elected for two-year terms and senators for four-year terms. But when boundaries are shifted and a substantial number of voters are shuffled in or out of a district, the board can declare a Senate seat to be a two-year seat. For that reason, the board declared that 19 of 20 Senate seats were up for election in 2012. That could have the effect of forcing a state senator to defend a seat thought to be safe, and draw money that could have been spent by candidates in other races.

In addition to Ruedrich's group, private-plan maps have been submitted by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, which is concerned about representation for Southeast Alaska; two voters in the Fairbanks area who successfully sued against the 2012 plan and don't want their city and suburbs to include vast swaths of rural Alaska; and the Calista Corp., the regional Native corporation in Bethel concerned about protecting Native voting power.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.

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