Politics

4 things to know as Alaska’s redistricting board takes public testimony Monday in Anchorage

On Monday in Anchorage, Alaska’s five-person redistricting board will take public testimony during a town hall meeting on what the state’s political boundaries should look like for the next decade.

The board is considering six different proposals, and one of them — with or without modifications — must be approved by Nov. 10.

The meeting at the Dena’ina Center begins at 4:30 p.m. and is scheduled to run through 6:30 p.m. Other meetings have stayed open longer to accommodate more testimony.

Whether you’re interested in attending Monday’s meeting or simply want to follow the process, here are four things to know:

1. This only happens once every 10 years.

Alaska’s constitution requires new legislative boundaries every 10 years, after the U.S. census is complete, in order to account for changes in Alaska’s population.

The goal is to ensure each state legislator represents roughly the same number of voters. For members of the state House, the ideal district has 18,335 people — roughly equal to the state’s population in the latest census divided by the 40 House seats. For senators, it’s twice that.

In 1998, voters approved a constitutional amendment that put redistricting in the hands of a five-member board.

The five members of this year’s board are Bethany Marcum of Anchorage and Budd Simpson of Juneau (both appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy); John Binkley of Fairbanks (appointed by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage); Nicole Borromeo of Anchorage (appointed by former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham); and Melanie Bahnke of Nome (appointed by former Chief Justice Joel Bolger).

Binkley’s sons and daughter are the owners of the Anchorage Daily News, and Binkley himself does not have a role in the paper’s operations. The Binkleys are not involved in news coverage.

The board is considering two draft maps from its members, and outside groups have proposed another four.

[All six proposals are embedded in a Google map below; click the icon in the upper-left corner of the window to toggle them on and off to compare.]

Under the state constitution, the board must approve one map by majority vote no later than Nov. 10.

In each prior redistricting process, the final map has been challenged in court.

2. The result will have a big impact on Alaska politics.

The five redistricting board members have said repeatedly that they are not taking partisan political considerations into account and did not examine where incumbent legislators live.

Those statements were greeted with loud scoffs during a public testimony session in Juneau, and during prior board meetings, some Alaskans accused the board of gerrymandering — drawing lines that favor one political party over another.

In the 2020 presidential election, voters in 35 of Alaska’s current House districts voted for the same party in the presidential race and for the state House.

In 19 districts, voters picked Democrat Joe Biden. In 21, they picked Republican Donald Trump.

If the election had been run under the map proposed by Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, a third-party group, 15 districts would have favored Biden and 25 would have favored Trump. That would have increased the likelihood of more Republicans in the state House.

In the other direction, a map proposed by the Alaska Senate’s minority Democrats would have resulted in 20 districts favoring Biden and 20 favoring Trump.

The board’s two draft options are called Version 3 and Version 4 because two preliminary versions have already been tossed out.

Version 3 would have created a 19-21 split in favor of Trump, and Version 4 would have created a 20-20 split.

There’s another factor to consider. The various maps put some incumbent legislators into the same districts, forcing them to run against each other while leaving other districts with no incumbent.

Incumbents normally have an electoral advantage.

In Version 3, Anchorage Democratic Reps. Zack Fields, Harriet Drummond and Matt Claman are all in one proposed district. In three other Anchorage districts, another six incumbents would have to run against each other.

Version 4 puts six Anchorage incumbents into three districts, forcing them to run against each other.

Because most of those incumbents are members of the Alaska House’s bipartisan coalition, some Alaskans have accused the board of being biased against coalition members.

The board has consistently denied those claims and members repeatedly said they did not look at incumbents’ residency when drawing the maps.

3. Redistricting must follow certain rules — but those rules can be interpreted in many different ways.

Under the Alaska Constitution, House districts must be “formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.”

They also must contain a population “as near as practicable” to the state’s population divided by 40. This year, that’s 18,335.

Each of the six proposed maps emphasizes different aspects of those rules. The board-drawn maps favor the “integrated socio-economic area” rule, board chairman Binkley said in Juneau last month.

“The (population) deviation isn’t the most important thing,” he said. “We look at that after the three other things.”

Under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the maximum difference between the biggest district and smallest district is 10% of the ideal. Both of the board’s maps have about a deviation of about 9%.

Maps proposed by Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting and the Senate Democrats emphasize the smallest possible deviation, each finishing between 3% and 4%.

Their authors said population counts should be the priority because the more people who are in a district, the less power an individual voter has.

If the difference between the smallest district and the biggest district is too large, voters in different parts of the state will have much more or much less power.

Complicating the process, map-drawing is less like actual drawing and more like building with Legos. Each district is built from distinct parcels previously drawn by the U.S. Census Bureau and known as census blocks.

The blocks can vary in size and shape, contributing to some odd boundaries. In one case, said redistricting board director Peter Torkelson, a block boundary ran directly through someone’s home, and that block happened to be the exact border between two proposed House districts.

That problem will be fixed before the final map is approved, he said.

4. While the Alaska Supreme Court is likely to determine the final maps, public testimony still counts.

In every redistricting process since statehood, the final map has been decided by the Alaska Supreme Court.

In the past, public testimony has factored into the legal process, with plaintiffs and judges referring to that testimony when considering various alternatives.

Testimony is also important for the board’s map-drawing process, and that process is relevant even if judges have the final word. In the last redistricting cycle, a board-drawn map was used during the 2012 elections because of the slow pace of legal proceedings.

It’s useful to tell the board which Anchorage neighborhoods are tied together, said representatives of the groups that have proposed third-party maps. Written testimony is the most effective way to communicate, said Joelle Hall of Alaskans for Fair Redistricting.

At Monday’s Anchorage meeting, the board is expected to have computers where attendees can offer their thoughts. They also will have microphones to record verbal testimony.

Written testimony can be emailed to testimony@akredistrict.org.

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