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Alaska's redistricting process costing millions

Patti Epler

It promises to be months yet before Alaskans will know what legislative districts they live in and who they can vote for.

And the contentious process of redrawing political boundaries, something that happens every 10 years, likely will suck up another $1.4 million or so as redistricting officials work to get their plan through a Justice Department review and then defend it in court. The state already has spent about $1.5 million since it started work last year on the redistricting effort.

The five-member Alaska Redistricting Board met in Anchorage Monday to regroup a bit since the deadline for filing lawsuits against the board's proposal has passed. Three legal actions were filed -- one by the Fairbanks North Star Borough, one by two Fairbanks-area men and one by the City of Petersburg. All three challenge the final plan, issued June 14, as unconstitutional or in violation of rules that require legislative districts to be as compact as possible and contain residents with similar socioeconomic interests.

Perhaps the biggest political gripe is over the way the board handled parts of Fairbanks, lumping the northwest portion of the city in with a district that stretches west across the entire state to the Bering Sea. Fairbanks has little in common with rural villages on the coast hundreds of miles away, let alone many of the areas in between, critics say. The plan also pits two Fairbanks Democratic senators against each other while leaving a new nearby Senate seat open.

Petersburg officials are unhappy with being combined with Juneau. For years, Petersburg was politically aligned with Sitka. But the Southeast Alaska area lost significant population in the last decade and had to give up a House district. Two incumbent senators, one Republican and one Democrat, will be forced to run against each other in the new configuration.

The redistricting process is the biggest political fight of the year, with control of the Legislature at stake. In particular, the Senate is evenly split between 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats and political leaders from both parties have been accusing the predominately Republican board of gerrymandering the new districts to favor the GOP. Even a change in one seat would have significant political implications for the Legislature and key initiatives of Gov. Sean Parnell, also a Republican.

Ten years ago, nine lawsuits were filed against the redistricting plan and the state ended up paying out about $2 million to plaintiffs who successfully challenged it, according to Taylor Bickford, executive director of the board.

Now, the board has about $1.4 million budgeted for fiscal year 2012, which began July 1. Bickford told the board at Monday's meeting it might have to ask the Legislature for more money but that wasn't clear yet.

In an interview, he said most of the budget is expected to go to legal costs including the board's defense of the plan. How long it might take for the courts to decide this year's plan is unknown, but 10 years ago the lawsuits went to trial early the following year with a court decision in March.

Candidates need to file for office by June 2012 for the 2012 elections although some have already started planning campaigns for what likely will be substantially new geographic territory for them.

Meanwhile, the board still needs to gain approval from the Justice Department which is supposed to make sure Alaska Natives have not been deprived of their ability to elect candidates of their choice. Alaska is one of a handful of states that must get federal approval under the Voting Rights Act.

Bickford said the board hopes to have the plan and its documentation filed with the Justice Department within two weeks. The agency then has 60 days to act.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.