Redistricting map solutions elusive as court battle looms

Richard Mauer

One of the most important and complicated insider games in politics moves back to the Alaska Supreme Court this week with an appeal by the Alaska Redistricting Board of its method for redrawing the state's legislative map.

In a petition filed Tuesday, the board is asking the high court to overturn a decision by a Fairbanks judge that the board failed to first rely on state law for drawing up "one-person, one vote" districts before adjusting them to prevent Alaska Native votes from being illegally diluted.

Native voting rights are protected by the U.S. Justice Department under the federal Voting Rights Act. The Alaska Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Voting Rights Act should be applied only after state requirements are met.

In its appeal, the board said the decision by the Fairbanks Superior Court judge, Michael McConahy, amounted to improper interference in its duties. In addition to asking it to overrule McConahy, the board asked the Supreme Court to take over the review of the entire redistricting process rather than send it back to the lower court.

As redistricting grinds on without a final map of the state's 40 House and 20 Senate districts, it's looking more likely that the 2012 election will be held under an interim plan. Last week, Gail Fenumiai, the state elections director, notified the redistricting board that her division must be given new district boundaries by May 14 if it is to conduct the Aug. 28 primary.

If the Supreme Court schedules oral arguments in the board's appeal, they'll be held the week of May 21.

Anticipating an unlikely resolution in time, the board also asked the Supreme Court to approve an interim plan -- basically an earlier district map that failed to pass court challenges.

Redistricting is a once-a-decade exercise that attempts to redraw political boundaries to reflect the population movements measured by the U.S. Census. The typical pattern in the United States has been the shift of population -- and political power -- from rural areas to urban and suburban ones. Alaska has seen a double shift, from the Bush to regional and urban centers, and from Southeast to the Railbelt, especially the Mat-Su region.

It's also a time for the political party in power to attempt to engineer district boundaries to improve its election chances till the next census. The term "gerrymander" stems from the contorted, salamander-shaped districts drawn by Massachusetts Gov. Eldridge Gerry in 1812 to help his party.

Alaska's Constitution tries to limit that kind of abuse by requiring district shapes be "compact." But it also provides for a political makeup of the five-member Redistricting Board by granting two appointments to the governor and one each to the House Speaker and Senate President, all of whom are Republicans this time around.

The fifth appointment is made by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and his choice was a Democrat.

Two of the most regular audience attendees of board meetings have been state Republican chairman Randy Ruedrich and Democratic Party executive director Kay Brown. Brown said the party is having trouble recruiting candidates because of the unsettled districts. Ruedrich said he isn't having that problem.

The original plan put two Democratic senators from Fairbanks into the same district, Joe Paskvan and Joe Thomas, but that district was challenged -- and changed. Now Paskvan is the sole incumbent of his district, while Thomas has to face another incumbent, Republican John Coghill of North Pole.

As currently mapped, two other members of the Senate bipartisan majority coalition will also face off, Republican Bert Stedman of Sitka and Democrat Albert Kookesh of Angoon. The board put two Anchorage Democratic House members together, Mike Doogan and Chris Tuck, but Doogan is retiring anyway. Two Republican House members from Southeast were also put together, Peggy Wilson of Wrangell and Kyle Johansen of Ketchikan, but Johansen is on the outs with his party and wasn't a member of the Republican-led House majority.

The city of Petersburg in Southeast last week asked the Redistricting Board to stick with the current district map for 2012 and not switch to an interim plan that would only be changed again for the 2014 election.

"Redistricting gets complicated as it goes and everybody gets confused when you change election districts," said City Clerk Kathy O'Rear. "Let's not force them to do it twice -- let just do it once and do it right."

But Taylor Bickford, the board's executive director, said that would be unfair. Population has shifted from Southeast to the point where it should lose a House district, he said.

"If we were to use the current plan as an interim plan, we'd be violating the federal constitution," Bickford said. "You'd be violating the preeminent rule of redistricting, which is one person, one vote."

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.

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