Opinions

Alaska’s redistricting board targets the House Majority Coalition

With Alaska’s decennial redistricting process underway, public feedback has already been fierce, with accusations of naked partisanship. Following the release, a barrage of public testimony to the board pointed out that both draft maps pair several incumbents from the House Majority Coalition together into the same districts, forcing them to run against each other to keep their seats. Other comments put the board on blast for drawing maps that uniquely protect Republican House Minority members while drawing Majority Coalition members into more conservative-leaning districts.

In response, GOP appointees to the Republican-majority board have insisted that these maps are apolitical; they say no partisan data nor the location of incumbents were plugged into their redistricting software to create their maps.

And yet, both maps manage to produce outcomes that are grossly partisan. For instance, the first map draws a blatant square around Rep. Andi Story (D) in order to place her into the greater Juneau district with her colleague Rep. Sara Hannan (D).

Additionally, the maps shamelessly cram Reps. Matt Claman, Harriet Drummond and Zack Fields — all Democrats — into the same Downtown-West district. Both versions have unique incumbent pairings in addition to this, including Democrats Ivy Spohnholz and Liz Snyder in the first version as well as Democrats Andy Josephson and Chris Tuck in the second version.

Pairing incumbents gives the opposition party an advantage for the simple reason that incumbents are much harder to beat. Only one person can win a district’s seat, so drawing multiple representatives into one district essentially forces the losers into retirement while leaving their old district’s seat open — and thus easier for a Republican to win.

To make things worse, they also produce less competitive districts that entrench Republican incumbents. By using absentee-allocated composite precinct analysis from Harvard’s Voting and Election Science Team, we can calculate how a proposed district would have voted in past statewide elections. By comparing the projected partisanship of a new district to the current balance, we can partly measure how fair the maps are.

As a reminder, Alaska has 40 House districts. Under the current map, Joe Biden won in 19 of those districts in 2020, Mark Begich won 20 in 2018, and Hillary Clinton won 13 in 2016.

Under the first map drafted by Board member Bethany Marcum, Biden would barely have won 18 of the districts, while Begich would have dropped to just 16. Clinton would have won 11. Under the second map, which is based on the first map and tweaked by Board member Nicole Borromeo, Biden and Clinton would have maintained their district-level wins, while Begich would have captured 19 districts.

How do these numbers impact state legislative races? A closer look at the maps show that several were designed to give incumbents from the House Coalition harder districts to win. For example, Rep. Josephson is pulled from his long-held U-Med seat, trading a district that voted for Biden by 18% in 2020 to just one that would have voted for Biden by only 7%. Under the first proposal, Rep. Adam Wool’s revised Fairbanks district adds ultra-conservative Salcha and Eielson, flipping it from a win for Biden to Trump.

Not only do the maps disadvantage House Majority incumbents, they also make House Republican seats easier to hold onto. Both maps pull Rep. David Nelson (R) out of a district that is shifting toward Democrats so quickly that both he and Trump barely won it in 2020. Instead, both drafts place him into a racially gerrymandered district that runs from Northeast Muldoon to South Anchorage. In the first draft, the district would have barely voted for Biden, but is actually shifting right at the presidential level. The second draft puts him into a district that would have voted for Trump by 21%.

Nelson is not an outlier example. The new maps would move Rep. James Kaufman out of his South Anchorage-Girdwood district, which he barely won as it flipped from Trump to Biden in 2020. Under both versions, Kaufman would go from defending a Biden +0.79% district to one that would have voted for Trump by a margin between 8% and 12%.

Lastly, the board shores up the weakest member of the House Minority by slicing liberal-leaning Fritz Creek, which is 15 minutes away from downtown Homer, out of Rep. Sarah Vance’s seat.

To call this map nonpartisan is to avoid the obvious effort to shield House Minority Republicans from districts that are increasingly hostile to their radical politics. The numbers speak for themselves, but so does the glaring fact that not a single Republican legislator is competitively disadvantaged in either map.

Our independent board was created to distinguish ourselves from states who let politicians draw their own districts. However, if the board plans on drawing more maps like this, there’s no real difference between an independent board and allowing our legislators to gerrymander the maps themselves.

Together, as Alaskans, we must reject the board’s proposed maps and demand an accountable, nonpartisan process.

Robert Hockema is a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage (Political Science, Communications) working in politics and advocacy.

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