Every 10 years, members of Alaska’s redistricting board convene to approve political maps that determine that shape the balance of power in the Legislature. The work is never without controversy, and disputes are routinely scrutinized by the courts to determine if the boundaries selected by political appointees have egregiously disenfranchised some Alaskans in violation of the law.
This week, the board’s most controversial actions concern the shape of state Senate districts in Anchorage that three of the five members voted in favor of, against strong objections by two other members.
All three of the in-favor members are Republican appointees to the body, which has left critics calling the maneuver a partisan power grab that gives undue power to conservative constituencies at the expense of minority voters and a fair process.
“My head is still spinning,” said board member Nicole Borromeo, appointed to the body by Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgemon, an independent who heads the bipartisan majority caucus. Borromeo voted against the Senate pairings, which she felt came as a surprise after what had previously been a solid public process. “That all went out the window on Monday.”
Senate districts are made by joining together two House districts. While those smaller units must be geographically connected and economically similar, the redistricting board still has some latitude to adjust Senate boundaries by picking which House districts will constitute each one.
In the case of the pairings adopted earlier this week, the board’s actions essentially created a second Senate seat covering large tracts of Eagle River north of the Anchorage Bowl by dipping into portions of downtown and East Anchorage.
The move will likely give more Senate representation to one of the most reliably Republican pockets of Alaska at the expense of other communities’ political efficacy.
Under the previous map, the whole of the Eagle River and Chugiak area was one district, represented by Republican state Sen. Lora Reinbold. Under the new map, Reinbold’s “District K” would begin in downtown Eagle River, run down the Glenn Highway and then hop a gap to re-begin in the southern chunk of East Anchorage’s Muldoon area, extending from DeBarr Road south to Tudor Road, and including a portion of Nunaka Valley. The two House districts making up the reconfigured Senate seat are technically contiguous because they border each other along an unpopulated stretch of mountains. There is no way to drive from one end of Senate District K to the other without crossing through another district, save taking an off-road vehicle through the foothills of the Chugach.
The second Eagle River Senate district is geographically sprawling, beginning at the northern most boundary of the municipality and running southward along the Glenn Highway through Eklutna, Peters Creek, Birchwood and Chugiak, including all of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson through Government Hill to Fourth Avenue downtown. The newly matched Senate “District L” runs from the Port of Alaska to the Knik River. The new boundaries mean it is an open seat, with no current incumbent.
“It’s preposterous,” Borromeo said. “(The) reach into south Muldoon was such an egregious minority vote dilution that the field of litigants is endless.”
[Below: Zoom in on the map to see new legislative districts approved by the Redistricting Board]
‘You can’t please everybody with the maps’
At issue in the Senate boundaries approved by the board is whether the pairings are mismatched in a way that effectively mutes the voices of some voters while amplifying others.
The language in the Alaska Constitution focuses more on integrity in the determination of House districts, which are approved first, under the presupposition that solid House units will make for good Senate pairings. The constitutional article on district boundaries reads, “Each House district shall be formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area. Each shall contain a population as near as practicable to the quotient obtained by dividing the population of the state by forty.”
The only criterion governing boundaries for the upper chamber is that, “Each Senate district shall be composed as near as practicable of two contiguous House districts. Consideration may be given to local government boundaries.”
“The only factor in the constitution for Senate districts to be realized is that they be contiguous,” said Randy Ruedrich, former head of the Alaska Republican Party and the technical adviser for the group Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting.
“There’s substantial precedent for this to be done,” Ruedrich said, pointing out that nearly the same redistricting boundary came out of the 2011 process, which ultimately led Democratic state Sen. Bettye Davis to lose her seat to Republican Anna Fairclough in 2012. That boundary was later revised as part of a comprehensive revision to the election map in 2013.
According to redistricting board member Melanie Bahnke, appointed to the body by Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger, she had proposed a Senate map that kept both Eagle River House districts paired together. Instead, Bahnke said that member Bethany Marcum, appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, introduced a proposal to break up Eagle River and pair its House districts with other areas less self-evidently connected to one another. Then, according to Bahnke, that proposal was hurriedly jammed through and voted on by the two other Republican appointees, with insufficient discussion about its merits and pitfalls.
“What happened here came as a complete surprise. And I don’t appreciate that,” Bahnke said after the measure was approved 3 to 2.
“Our outcome has resulted in the silencing or muzzling or muffling of — whatever term you want to use — of a particular segment of Alaska voters,” Bahnke said to board members in later remarks.
Bahnke is president and CEO of Kawerak Inc., the Bering Strait region’s Alaska Native nonprofit. Marcum is CEO of the Alaska Policy Forum. Borromeo is executive vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Part of the rationale articulated by Marcum for breaking up Eagle River has to do with that area’s close ties with JBER, as well as some parts of East Anchorage’s relationship with the base.
Marcum did not respond to numerous phone calls, emails and messages requesting an interview.
“I believe she made a compelling case,” said board chairman John Binkley, a former Republican state legislator appointed to the board by then-Senate president Cathy Giessel of Anchorage, a Republican.
“I felt that the Senate pairings that we did were fair. And all of these are close calls. There’s any number of ways to draw these maps,” Binkley said.
(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.)
According to Binkley, while a few of the Senate pairings look unconventional because they leap beyond familiar neighborhood boundaries, they do follow the law. The House districts geographically border one another, and while the communities they cover might be racially and economically mixed, the redistricting board treats all areas of the Municipality of Anchorage as part of the same socioeconomic grouping.
“It shows you the enormity and difficulty of the task,” Binkley said. “You can’t please everybody with the maps.”
While he believes the process was handled properly and led to fair political boundaries, he is clear-eyed that the controversial aspects will be decided by judges.
“It’ll be litigated, I’m sure, and then it’s up to the courts,” Binkley said.
‘It’s always about breaking up the east side’
Borromeo and close watchers of partisan politics see the Senate pairings as a gerrymander to expand conservative power in the Senate at the expense of more politically heterodox and racially diverse parts of the municipality.
On Monday during a public section of the board’s meeting, Marcum offered a reasoning for splitting up the Eagle River Senate district that some observers point to as betraying an unfair outcome.
“Eagle River has its own two separate House districts. This actually gives Eagle River the opportunity to have more representation. So they’re certainly not going to be disenfranchised by this process,” Marcum said while explaining her proposal.
In her closing remarks to the board, Borromeo outlined her concerns about the statement.
“Far from being a compelling rationale, her observation exposes the Board to claims of racial and partisan gerrymandering in North and South Muldoon,” Borromeo said.
Her frustration, Borromeo said, is not about the move being advantageous to Republicans, but about how it corrupts what is supposed to be a fair and transparent redistricting process.
“If that was a Democrat district, that would have been a problem, too,” Borromeo said. “You can’t give a particular community more representation and state that on the record.”
The flip-side of increasing representation in one area is diminution of electoral power in another.
Forrest Dunbar represents East Anchorage on the city Assembly, and ran a progressive campaign to serve as mayor before narrowly losing to Dave Bronson in a runoff in May.
“This is a gerrymander to reduce the power of East Anchorage and increase the power of Eagle River,” Dunbar said of the latest Senate District K boundaries.
Dunbar believes the new Senate maps pack enough conservative Eagle River voters into the districts to determine who will end up representing many Anchorage Bowl residents whose politics might be quite different.
“Now we have people living in the Baxter neighborhood and people living in the condos of downtown, and both of them are being represented by people from Eagle River-Chugiak,” Dunbar said. “And that’s just not right.”
Ruedrich disagreed the new Senate boundaries have any inherent advantage for Republicans.
“It has to be earned just like any other seat,” he said.
“This fight over the east side, the fact that it comes up every decade, it means something,” said Joelle Hall, chair of Alaskans For Fair Redistricting and president of the Alaska AFL-CIO. “This is an effort to bury certain people’s votes.”
The tracts of southern Muldoon included in the reconfigured District L, she said, include many blue-collar, working-class, immigrant and minority residents. The area is neither solidly Republican nor Democrat, and representatives for its House seat can be determined by just a few hundred votes.
Hall said that because the issue is which districts are paired, rather than the underlying district map itself, it is more likely for the courts to speedily settle a legal challenge prior to the 2022 elections.
“Nobody is going to dispute the underlying House districts. It’s just the pairings,” Hall said. “These pairings are not rational pairings.”
Hall said the board’s action exposes a major flaw with the redistricting process: While the House maps are subject to plenty of public scrutiny and input from residents around the state, the Senate district pairing process gets relatively little scrutiny prior to adoption.
“Nobody got to comment. They didn’t tour the state with those pairings revealed,” Hall said. “It just should never happen again. This part is really, really, really wrong.”
In closing remarks to the board, Bahnke said that after frustrating actions taken by the three members who voted for the controversial Senate pairing, she had found a bit of optimism.
“I’m actually encouraged,” Bahnke said. “I think had we just silently adopted Senate pairings that were fair and just, that would have been a great victory for the state.”
“But I think the greater victory that I see playing out here is that this is shining a light on the need for Alaskans to expect and deserve better from, not only our elected officials, but also our appointed officials,” she said.