Five Alaskans appointed to a state board are buckling down to draw new lines for state legislative districts, trying to resolve a complex puzzle of math, geography, legalities, socio-economics -- and politics.
Every 10 years, the state must create new districts to reflect population shifts recorded in the U.S. Census.
It isn't easy.
Every redistricting plan since Alaska statehood has been declared unconstitutional at least in part. The way lines are drawn can jeopardize seats of incumbent legislators by planting them in opposition party territory or in another legislator's district, making the process an opportunity for political mischief-making. The districts are supposed to be compact and equally sized. The result will shape the state Legislature for the next decade.
Among the challenges:
• Alaska Native voters. The board must ensure the voting power of Alaska Natives isn't weakened, even though over the past decade many Natives have migrated from rural communities into urban areas, where their strength as a voting bloc is diluted.
Lisa Handley, the board's Washington, D.C.-area consultant on the U.S. Voting Rights Act, said last week she's never seen a situation as complicated as Alaska's in terms of preserving minority voting.
• Winners and losers. Southeast Alaska, which has lost population since the last Census, will lose a House seat and see big shifts in legislative boundaries. Residents have been vocal in their displeasure. Mat-Su, the fastest growing part of Alaska, gains a seat.
• Competing interest groups. A number of private groups have created their own maps with new legislative boundaries for the board to consider. Among them are Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, which includes unions and Native groups, and the similar sounding Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, which is led by Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich. There's also the Rights Coalition, led by the Alaska Democratic Party.
• One person, one vote. Divide the state population by the 40 House districts and the result is 17,755 residents in each, or as close to that as possible. In densely populated urban districts, only a small fluctuation is allowed, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled. Rural districts may be off by hundreds of voters.
• Deadline pressure. The job must be done in 90 days, a deadline set in a 1998 state constitutional amendment.
The board's first executive director, a lawyer with years of experience in public service, Ron Miller, died May 8 of a heart attack after a particularly grueling couple of weeks.
Grieving board members scrambled to regroup. On the day of Miller's funeral, they picked the 25-year-old assistant director, Taylor Bickford, to fill the top job. Bickford was previously campaign manager in the losing 2010 Republican primary bid of gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker.
The deadline for an approved plan is June 14.
THE R'S AND THE D'S
The makeup of the board itself raises questions. It includes four Republicans and one Democrat. Can a lopsided board create new legislative districts that will be fair to Democrats?
The board chairman, John Torgerson of Soldotna, a Republican former state senator, said the question wasn't worth answering.
"We have a good board. Deep thinkers. Passionate. Know the state. Take their job very seriously," he said.
The board's lone Democrat, Marie Greene, NANA Regional Corp. Inc. president, said she hasn't felt outgunned at the table.
"Not yet, anyway," she said.
She and Republican board member PeggyAnn McConnochie have huddled together to come up with a new legislative map. The two traveled to public hearings in Northwest and Southeast Alaska.
"From the beginning, we're not looking at each other as Republicans or Democrats. We come together with the end in mind, and that's to meet all that's required of us," Greene said. That includes making sure Native voting strength isn't weakened, she said.
Ten years ago, the redistricting board created a map that initially pitted 20 incumbent Republicans against one another but didn't do the same to any sitting Democrats. Far more legislative seats were held by Republicans than Democrats, so the chances of a redrawn boundary leading to a GOP match-up were greater.
That board included one Democrat, one Republican and three who were nonpartisan or didn't declare a party. It adopted boundaries proposed by Alaskans for Fair Redistricting.
"Not a Democrat was paired with another Democrat. Not a Democrat was paired with a Republican. Not fair," Ruedrich said, explaining why he added "equitable" to his group's name. "It was a highly prejudiced process."
But Vicki Otte, who chaired the redistricting board 10 years ago, said the result was a state Senate with 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. What could be more fair than that? she said.
This time around, various plans put incumbents into the same districts but not nearly so many as 10 years ago.
In Anchorage, for example, state Sens. Bettye Davis and Bill Wielechowski, both Democrats, would be in the same district under the GOP-backed plan that some redistricting board members also have said they like.
Davis said she hasn't been following the process closely with so much of it still in flux. But she wondered whether the goal might be to break the coalition of Democrats and Republicans who lead the Senate by taking down one Democrat.
If the Senate consisted of nine Democrats and 11 Republicans, the power-sharing arrangement could crumble.
"They are saying they think that's best for the district and they are trying to be fair about it," Davis said. "You can talk lip service. But it still does the damage." One important factor in whether she runs for a fourth term is whether she would face another sitting senator, she said.
NATIVE VOTING POWER
The biggest challenge for the board is how to create enough districts in which Alaska Native candidates or Native-backed candidates have a good chance at winning, according to board members and interest groups.
Under the last redistricting plan, there were nine such districts -- six in the House, and three in the Senate. Much of the board's energy over the last two months has gone into how to match that number this time around.
The factors to be considered are complicated and include whether Natives and whites vote for different candidates, how easy it is for an Alaska Native to be elected in a particular area, and the percentage of Native voters.
Alaska is among just nine states, almost all in the South, that must undergo a U.S. Department of Justice review before making any changes to voting, including the drawing of new district lines. Selected counties and cities are covered in another six states. The extra oversight applies to jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against minority voters.
The migration of Alaska Natives from rural areas into urban centers means proposed rural districts often are huge or strangely shaped in order to include enough voters.
The union-backed Alaskans for Fair Redistricting recently proposed one House district that stretched from the Bering Sea to Canada, taking in everything from Nome to Fort Yukon to Eagle to McCarthy.
A board proposal would put Bethel in the same district as Healy.
"The east-west plan goes all the way from the coast, all the way up the Kuskokwim, behind Mount McKinley, then jumps over the mountain, then catches the Denali Borough," said Rep. Bob Herron, a Democrat from Bethel who is part of the GOP-led majority coalition in the House.
Villagers along the Kuskokwim don't have much in common with residents of the borough, he said.
His constituents prefer the plan from Ruedrich's group because it creates a more compact Bethel district, he said.
Bickford said the board hopes to have a plan by June 4 in order to give staff members time to prepare accompanying documents by the June 14 deadline. Staff members already are working into the night, as are those involved in the various interest groups.
"This is definitely not a process where you can make everybody happy," he said.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER