Alaska’s five-person redistricting board approved two first-draft maps Thursday, adopting them by unanimous vote and closing the first step of Alaska’s once-a-decade redistricting process.
By Nov. 10, the board must approve a final draft that will set the borders of Alaska’s state House and Senate seats.
That map will almost certainly be subject to legal challenge and adjudication by the Alaska Supreme Court, and the result will set the boundaries of political fights for the next decade.
Over the next week, the board will accept ideas from the public before beginning a series of statewide public meetings to gather feedback. Comments can also be submitted on the redistricting board’s website, akredistrict.org.
“This is a dynamic process, where it will be evolving and changing as we get input from the public, on what they see in these maps and other people’s opinions,” said redistricting board chairman John Binkley.
“The mapping process isn’t stopping for the board either, just because we have collectively adopted two versions,” said board member Nicole Borromeo. “I’m going to continue mapping, and I expect others on the board as well will continue mapping.”
Board staff initially said that the draft maps would not be available to the public for “24-48 hours,” but after inquiries from the Daily News, they made copies available on their website.
Alaska is required, under state and federal law, to redraw legislative districts after every U.S. Census in order to accommodate population gain and loss in different parts of the state.
More populous states must redistrict their U.S. House seats. In Alaska, only legislative districts are redrawn, and the duty falls to a five-person board with members appointed by the governor, Speaker of the House, Senate President and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court.
“We started with a blank slate based on what the population changes were,” Binkley said. “And so these are brand new maps for Alaskans to look at. And it really is based on what those population shifts have been in the last 10 years.”
On Thursday, the board agreed on most boundaries across the state but couldn’t agree on the boundary between the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Municipality of Anchorage.
Rather than decide the issue now, board members decided to approve two different ideas and take feedback.
In one map, a legislative district that starts in Chugiak-Eagle River extends north to the Knik River. In the other, it stops at the boundary between the Mat-Su and Anchorage boroughs.
That geographically small difference has ripple effects throughout Anchorage, moving boundaries by blocks in different directions. Both maps stop their southernmost district at the southern boundary of the Municipality.
Alaska’s constitution discourages gerrymandering, the practice of drawing sprawling districts to benefit a political party. It states that districts should be “contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.”
On Thursday, board members disagreed about whether Anchorage and the Mat-Su are integrated or whether districts should stop at borough boundaries, as they agreed should take place in Fairbanks.
Currently, Fairbanks has five state House seats within its boundaries, and it includes part of a sixth. In the drafts approved Thursday, the board placed five seats entirely within borough boundaries.
According to census figures, the ideal legislative district should have 18,335 residents. To fit five districts within the Fairbanks borough, each is slightly above that figure.
“I would say that I am concerned,” said Randy Ruedrich, of Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, a Republican-linked group that has participated in redistricting for decades.
Joelle Hall, of Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a group supported by labor unions, nonprofits and Native organizations, also called the Fairbanks decision odd.
In prior redistricting cycles, Ruedrich has favored districts that hew more closely to the ideal figure, the better to follow the standard of one person, one vote. In districts with fewer people, each voter has more power.
His group has already submitted a draft proposal to the redistricting board, and he said it may submit another.
Hall and Ruedrich both said public testimony is important because when a final map is finally considered by the courts, all suggestions are available for the judges.
“So it builds a better process if you participate,” Ruedrich said. “And that applies to all 733,000-plus Alaskans.”
In both draft maps, the North Slope and Northwest Arctic Borough share a district, and population growth in Southwest Alaska has allowed the creation of a district that hugs the Bering Sea coast.
That district currently extends inland, but the draft maps move the boundary west, allowing the creation of a vast Interior seat that encompasses most of the Doyon Native Corp. region, fish-hooks around Fairbanks and ends at Valdez.
Board members indicated in discussion that they aren’t certain whether Valdez should be included in the big Interior district, kept in a district linked to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, or treated in another way.
Southeast Alaska keeps all four of its current House seats, but the boundaries are redrawn so one of those seats now stretches from Yakutat south along the outer coast through Sitka, Prince of Wales Island and Metlakatla. Juneau keeps its two House seats, and Ketchikan is linked with Petersburg and Wrangell.