Politics

Redistricting may determine Alaska’s elections for the next decade. Political groups are vying to have an impact.

Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond has been representing parts of Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood in the Alaska House of Representatives for eight years.

But in next year’s statewide elections, her biggest challenge could come from two members of her own party, rather than opposition Republicans.

Every 10 years, Alaska redraws its legislative districts after the U.S. census, to account for changes in population. A five-member board draws the new boundaries, and its two first drafts put Drummond in the same district as fellow Democratic Reps. Matt Claman and Zack Fields, an act that would force them to run against one another in 2022.

Four other Democratic House incumbents and two Republican incumbents also show up in shared districts, and that possibility caused progressive groups to ask the board for changes.

Others have proposed draft maps of their own and shared them in a daylong hearing Friday in Anchorage.

The state redistricting board will take public testimony throughout October, then approve a final map design. But the ultimate result will almost certainly be decided by a legal challenge that ends in either the Alaska Supreme Court or federal court.

The goal of these new proposals isn’t to change the minds of board members. It’s to change the minds of the judges who will make the ultimate decision. Maps and testimony introduced now can be used in the court cases to come.

“Those that are experienced in it, they know and understand that the endgame is in the court system,” said board chairman John Binkley.

Redistricting can affect election results before the first candidate starts their campaign, which gives political groups a powerful incentive to get involved now, while next decade’s map is undecided.

Most of Alaska’s voters are registered independent or nonpartisan, but they don’t generally vote that way.

If the majority of voters in a certain area voted for Joe Biden, they’re much more likely to vote for a Democratic state legislator. If the majority voted for Donald Trump, they’re more likely to vote for a Republican.

In last year’s presidential election, only one of Alaska’s 40 state House districts voted for both Biden and a Republican in the state House. None voted for Trump and a Democrat. Three voted for Biden and an independent, and one voted for Trump and an independent.

The remaining 35 voted for the same party in the presidential race and for the state Legislature.

Because political parties collect vast amounts of data on individual voters, they can determine whether a particular place is more likely to vote for a particular party or not, then draw a map that suits them.

On Friday, a coalition of Alaska Native organizations presented a map, as did the Alaska Democratic Party. Democrats in the Alaska Senate’s minority caucus offered a different proposal.

Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting is a Republican-oriented group that includes former party chairman Randy Ruedrich. It presented a map different from the one suggested by Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, which is chaired by Joelle Hall, head of the AFL-CIO in Alaska.

Alaska’s constitution contains provisions intended to prevent that. House districts must be “formed of contiguous and compact territory,” be “a relatively integrated socio-economic area,” and “as near as practicable,” contain the state’s total population divided by 40.

On Friday, different maps emphasized different requirements. Ruedrich said his group’s map emphasized equal population, even if it meant sacrificing some compactness.

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, presented the map from the Senate Democrats, which had an even stronger equal-population approach than the one offered by Ruedrich’s group.

“I do believe that is what the court will look at,” Begich said.

After the meeting, board chairman Binkley said he’s not sure that’s the case. The map presented by Begich put the village of Deering in the same district as Nome, even though it’s in the Northwest Arctic Borough.

“Why would you want to put Deering, whose hub is Kotzebue, in with the Nome district just to get a tighter deviation?” he said. “That, to me, was an example where you can go too far in trying to get the numbers tight.”

Public testifiers on Friday said members of the board were gerrymandering their designs, driving them toward a particular political goal.

“Despite your claims to be apolitical, both of these versions seems really nakedly political with some very odd zigs and zags that just so happen to put bipartisan majority members against each other,” said Emily Becker, an Airport Heights resident.

Board members and redistricting board staff said they haven’t looked at where incumbents live and don’t have access to partisan data.

“We have no visibility about where individual legislators live, nor do we look at protecting or pairing them,” Binkley said.

Nicole Borromeo, who was appointed to the board by former Democratic Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, pointed out that her draft map put multiple Democrats in the same district.

And staffer Juli Lucky said she did the drawing of a Southeast border that put two Democrats in the same district.

“We weren’t looking at the incumbent data when we were looking at the maps. It was never mentioned at all,” she said.

Testimony will continue next week, and board members are planning to travel to at least 20 locations throughout the state during October. Maps and guides to testifying are available online at akredistrict.org.

Correction: An arlier version of this story incorrectly said 36 districts voted for the same party in the presidential race and the state Legislature. That figure failed to include independent Rep. Dan Ortiz’s district, which voted for Donald Trump.

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