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Constitutional questions dog latest plan to redraw election districts

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS—Claims and denials of gerrymandering and improper actions to protect a Republican incumbent senator remain to be sorted out as a new trial approaches on the constitutionality of the Alaska election districts.

A ruling is expected shortly by Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy on three requests for summary judgment, two filed by groups challenging the election plan and one by the Alaska Redistricting Board, which is defending the latest version it approved in July. McConahy’s rulings are expected to narrow or resolve the issues to be dealt with in a Fairbanks trial, now set for the second week of December. If a trial is needed, the board has asked for a delay until January because its attorney is recovering from an illness.

The redistricting plan, approved by a Republican-controlled board, has drawn constitutional challenges from the two Fairbanksans who challenged the last map, George Riley and Ron Dearborn, and from the Alaska Democratic Party.

The pleadings by the Riley Plaintiffs and the Democrats question the boundaries of the Mat-Su districts, the Kenai districts, the Fairbanks districts and some rural districts on various grounds.

The Riley Plaintiffs allege that five of the 40 House districts are not drawn to be as compact as they need to be to pass constitutional muster.

For instance, they argue that a large unpopulated area south of Fairbanks on the Tanana Flats has been placed in House District 5 so that it could be connected with a neighborhood of 831 people east of Fairbanks near North Pole.

The neighborhoods on the west side of Fairbanks tend to vote Democratic, while those on the east side are solidly Republican.

The area on the east side has been dubbed the North Pole “anvil.”

“The purpose of the compactness requirement is to prevent gerrymandering. Drawing these districts to bypass certain populations or to connect separated populations in an unusual way are indicia of gerrymandering,” attorney Joe McKinnon wrote for the Democratic Party.

He said there was no evidence on the record about an intent to do anything wrong, “however, the compactness requirement doesn’t depend on intent or effect.”

Michael White, the attorney for the redistricting board, said the unpopulated area was not added to connect two populated areas, but it had to be placed in some district. He wrote that all the districts approved by the board are compact.

One of the more contentious arguments detailed in the pleadings is whether the redistricting board acted inappropriately to keep Sen. John Coghill from having to run for re-election in 2014, by extending his term to 2016.

A July 7 meeting of the redistricting board featured “inferential evidence of overt partisan manipulations concerning the preservation of Sen. Coghill’s term of office,” attorney Mike Walleri charged in court documents on behalf of Riley and Dearborn.

Walleri said there was obvious confusion at the meeting among the board members about which Senate seats would be up in 2014 and which would be up in 2016.

He said that was when Randy Ruedrich, the former head of the Alaska Republican Party, said, “ I would suggest that you allow us to participate or take a recess so we can provide some clarity.”

He said that Ruedrich later made a comment on renumbering of districts and “how it’s supposed to be.” He said the board went off the record, conferred with the former GOP leader and then returned to take the action.

“Clearly going off the record to confer with the former head of the Republican Party as to which incumbent senators should have to stand for re-election and for what terms constitutes a violation of the Open Meetings Act,” Walleri wrote.

White responded that Walleri took the comments out of context and that was not what happened.

“A complete reading of the board record reveals the board was struggling with the new lettering system,” said White.

He said Ruedrich “was explaining the letter system” to the board members.

The plan “fully complies with federal and state law and provides all Alaskan voters with an equally effective vote.”

White rejected claims of “incumbency protection’ and said the board had a clear procedure that it followed.

It decided that if the population change from a district that existed in the 2012 election exceeded 25 percent, then the term of whoever held the seat would be “truncated” to two years.

He said the change in the population in Coghill’s district was 23 percent, so the term was not truncated.

“The board simply applied this objective threshold, which Senate District B did not meet. The board was not influenced by any ulterior or improper motives in choosing not to truncate Senate District B as the Riley Plaintiffs allege. Once again, the Riley Plaintiffs assert baseless allegations of partisan gerrymandering in the face of clear facts to the contrary,” White wrote.

Walleri said the claim that Ruedrich was “educating” the board on the lettering system might be believable if the board had gone back on the record and addressed the issue.

He said what actually happened is that the board returned from the education session, voted on the 25 percent cutoff and noted that it meant that Coghill would not have a shortened term. He said the “record strongly infers” that the discussion was not about the lettering, but about the standard of population change needed to keep a four-year term.

“The court should disregard the board’s unwarranted invitation to ignore the man behind the curtain,” Walleri said.

White, the attorney for the board, said the claims about inappropriate actions are baseless: “Their accusations of partisan gerrymandering are as hollow as their previous arguments in this regard and rejected as such by this court.”

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole