Opposition builds over redistricting plan

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Alaska communities are pushing back against the state's plan for redrawing legislative election districts. Lawsuits are being filed or contemplated in Fairbanks and the Aleutian Islands, while the Mat-Su Borough Assembly wanted to sue but the borough mayor vetoed the idea.

The Alaska Redistricting Board finished last month redrawing all of Alaska's state House and Senate districts in response to the population shifts reflected in the 2010 Census. The stakes are high. The result will shape Alaska politics for the next decade, helping set the balance of power and determine how communities are represented in Juneau.

The plan contains some tortured districts that lump people from very different parts of the state together. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly voted to sue, with its lawsuit expected to be filed in Alaska Superior Court early next week.

"We've got about 8,000 residents on the west side of Fairbanks that are linked in the plan with Hooper Bay, which is right on the Bering Sea. That's a 500-mile distance," said Assemblyman Tim Beck, who proposed the lawsuit.

Beck is talking about the proposed new House District 38. It's a massive, sprawling district from West Fairbanks through the Denali Borough and Athabascan villages on the upper Kuskokwim all the way to Yup'ik settlements on the Bering Sea coast.

That area would share a single representative in the state House. It would mean that Fairbanks Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg would have to campaign from Holy Cross to Hooper Bay and Fairbanks to Mountain Village in order to keep his seat.

The plan would also mean Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a longtime rural power in the Legislature, would likely be the state senator who represents West Fairbanks. "It would be easier for somebody who lived in Ester, say, or Goldstream Valley to fly to Juneau for a face-to-face with their senator then to go to Bethel," said Beck, the Fairbanks assemblyman.

The assembly's resolution authorizing the lawsuit says the plan violates the state constitutional standards for districts to be compact, contiguous and socio-economically integrated. The resolution also says it dilutes minority voting strength, which is the opposite of the reasoning the redistricting board used when creating the district that runs from Fairbanks to Hooper Bay.

The board said the configuration of the district was necessary to comply with the requirements of the Federal Voting Rights Act. The board is required by the act to 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.

That's not easy to do. The board said it "was required at times to depart from strict adherence to certain Alaska Constitutional redistricting standards of contiguity, compactness and socio-economic integration in order to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act." The report issued by the redistricting board said that population from rural areas had to be combined with population from urban areas in order to allow for the creation of Alaska Native districts.

Board executive director Taylor Bickford said the only lawsuit to be announced so far is the one coming from the Fairbanks borough.

"The board is pretty confident that its plan is strong. But that's not to say this challenge period isn't important, it's part of the process," Bickford said.

The process allows critics 30 days after the redistricting plan is adopted to file lawsuits. That deadline comes Wednesday. Every redistricting plan since statehood has faced a legal challenge and lawsuits against this one could grow in the coming week.

Alaska Democratic Party officials are meeting today to discuss a possible lawsuit, and the Aleutians East Borough is also considering court action.

The assembly of the Aleutians East Borough passed a resolution last Thursday opposing the redistricting plan. It objected that the plan splits the thinly populated borough, which includes parts of the Aleutians and Alaska Peninsula, into two separate House districts.. Akutan, for example, would be in a district that includes Bethel while King Cove, False Pass and Sand Point are in a different district that extends almost to the Mat-Su Borough.

The Mat-Su Borough almost sued. In late June, the assembly there directed its attorney to go ahead and file a lawsuit, but the mayor then vetoed that decision. Assembly members attempted to override the veto on Tuesday night, but the override attempt fell one vote short.

The biggest concern of the Mat-Su Assembly was with the new House District 6, which sprawls from the Fishhook area through Sutton-Chickaloon, south to Valdez and north up the Richardson Highway through Delta Junction and almost to Fairbanks.

The basis for the legal argument was going to be that the district wasn't contiguous or socioeconomically integrated "and has been expanded at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough's expense." But Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss said he thought Mat-Su did well overall in the redistricting plan and was worried about spending money on a lawsuit that could lead to a worse plan.

Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.