Politics

Alaska redistricting board approves new political borders, but legal challenges are expected

The five-member board in charge of redrawing Alaska’s legislative districts has approved a new map of the state’s 40 House districts, including Anchorage boundaries that were opposed by some Republicans.

The board has been working since August on the once-a-decade job of adjusting political boundaries to account for changes in population. The new map could affect election results, funding for local projects, and control of the state House and Senate.

“I’m satisfied with the result,” said redistricting board chairman John Binkley after the board voted 4-1 to approve the final design.

Board members are scheduled to meet again at 9 a.m. Monday to pick state Senate districts. They face a Nov. 10 deadline to finish work, and after that date, critics will have 30 days to challenge the result in court.

The board’s work will almost certainly be challenged. Every redistricting process since statehood has involved a lawsuit.

“I do believe it will hold up,” Binkley said. “I think we were careful about how and why we made decisions. And we had good legal guidance as we’ve gone through the process. We fully expect that it will be challenged, as every redistricting plan has, since statehood. But we feel that it will pass constitutional muster and will be the final plan.”

[The final map is embedded in a Google Map below; click the icon in the upper-left corner of the window to select whether or not to display the locations of incumbent legislators and the current boundaries.]

If the new boundaries are confirmed, some incumbent legislators will have to run campaigns against each other if both decide to seek re-election:

• In Wasilla, Republican Reps. David Eastman and Christopher Kurka are in the same district. A nearby district has no incumbent.

• In Chugiak-Eagle River, Republican Reps. Ken McCarty and Kelly Merrick are in the same district, while a district covering south Eagle River and Arctic Valley has no incumbent.

• Democratic Reps. Zack Fields and Harriet Drummond are in the same downtown Anchorage district; a new district roughly centered on Midtown Mall has no incumbent.

• Reps. Andy Josephson and Chris Tuck, both Anchorage Democrats, are in the same district.

• Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen and Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, both of Anchorage, are in a district that encompasses neighborhoods near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

• Though Senate districts have not yet been decided, Anchorage Republican Sens. Natasha von Imhof and Mia Costello are in the same House district, which would guarantee competition if both ran.

Redistricting board members have repeatedly said they did not take the homes of incumbent legislators into account while drawing maps; one prior version of Juneau’s districts had both of that city’s incumbents facing each other. They are now in separate districts.

The results of future elections will be determined by candidates and campaigns, but based on the results of the past few statewide elections, voters in 16 of the new districts appear to strongly prefer Republicans. Ten districts strongly lean toward Democrats, and the remaining 14 do not have a significant lean in either direction. Under the old boundaries, there were 17 firm Republican districts and 8 firm Democratic ones.

Board members did not consult partisan data during their public work sessions, and when criticized by members of the public, they said they didn’t look at information available elsewhere.

“I have no political knowledge of which people live where,” Marcum said during Friday’s meeting.

The five board members reached unanimous consensus Friday on all boundaries except those in Anchorage, where they had two final options after a week of drawing and re-drawing proposals that took into account months of public testimony.

The key vote Friday night was 3-2 to accept the districts proposed by board member Nicole Borromeo, who was appointed to the board by former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon. Board members Budd Simpson, an appointee of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and Melanie Bahnke, an appointee of former Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger, also voted yes.

Opposing the Anchorage districts were Binkley, appointed by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, and Dunleavy appointee Bethany Marcum. Both preferred a map drawn by Marcum.

Boundaries matter because they can determine local election results and in turn, control of the state House and Senate. In 2010, the Alaska Senate was controlled by a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans. After redistricting, Republicans took control of the Senate and have maintained that control since.

Redistricting can also affect individual representation. A town in a large legislative district may compete for the attention of its representatives, but the same town in a smaller district might have more attention and thus a better chance at getting state funding.

“Representation is money, and that is what we have been losing out on for decades,” said Andrew Guy, president/CEO of Calista Corp.

Guy was among dozens of people who testified Friday in an attempt to steer the board toward one preferred option or another.

Board members struggled to meet the requests of public testifiers while following the standards of the Alaska Constitution.

Under the constitution, each of the state’s 40 districts must be “formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.”

They must follow federal guidelines, too. The new boundaries can’t be racially discriminatory — they can’t split a majority Native area into several white-majority districts, for example.

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

Board members drew their districts out of census blocks, tracts of land defined by the U.S. Census Bureau that vary in size and population.

In rural Alaska, the tracts can be vast and oddly shaped — on Friday, the board’s chief staffer, Peter Torkelson, said he had discovered that one block boundary ran directly through a house. It was at least the second time that had happened.

Members compared that process to snapping toy LEGOs together to create shapes, but the legal requirements turned the process into a complicated puzzle.

During a Fairbanks meeting, testifier Gary Newman gave the board a 12-sided Rubik’s Cube.

“This is our mascot,” Torkelson said Wednesday, holding it up to the board’s Zoom camera.

The board began work in late August and approved two draft proposals that were modified, then circulated around the state in about two dozen sessions of public testimony. The sessions also included public testimony on four maps submitted by various groups.

On Tuesday, the board reconvened in Anchorage and began redrawing its proposals with the public testimony in mind. By Thursday, members had reached consensus on most of the state.

Anchorage remained an unsolved problem, in part because board members wanted to avoid creating a district that crossed the municipal boundary, except to include Whittier.

Marcum’s proposal would have divided the municipality’s population more evenly than the map drawn by Borromeo.

“I’m comfortable that to the degree possible, we’re honoring ‘one person, one vote,’” she said, referring to the idea that voters in different districts should be treated equally.

But in order to draw relatively equal districts, Marcum’s proposed boundaries meandered more than the relatively compact rectangles and other shapes drawn by Borromeo.

In East Anchorage, Marcum’s lines split the area among districts that would have been predominantly on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Public testimony Friday was overwhelmingly against that idea, and Alaska Black Caucus President and CEO Celeste Hodge Growden said it could be unconstitutional.

“This is outrageous and could violate provisions of the Voting Rights Act that protect minority representation,” she said. “This map is nothing less than a hackjob of the most diverse neighborhoods of Anchorage.”

In three hours of public testimony, only four people spoke in support of Marcum’s idea, including Alaska Republican Party chairwoman Ann Brown and Anchorage Assembly member Jamie Allard. Both spoke as individuals, rather than representatives of a group.

As board members spoke, Simpson became the swing vote. He said Marcum’s map did the best job on spreading population, but Borromeo’s had the edge on “compactness,” another one of the constitutional guidelines.

“The clincher for me is we’ve heard a lot of public testimony,” he said. “I need to go with the one that I think is the most legally sustainable.”

After the vote on the Anchorage districts, the vote to approve all 40 districts was 4-1, with Binkley joining the other three and Marcum remaining opposed.

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.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that three people testified in favor of Marcum’s plan. Four testified in favor.

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