The Alaska Redistricting Board unanimously approved the state’s final political map Monday after twice being found engaging in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.
In a landmark decision in April, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled explicitly for the first time that partisan gerrymandering runs afoul of the state constitution. The court had twice struck down political maps that attempted to give solidly Republican Eagle River more political representation with two Senate seats. An interim map that the court ordered to be used for last November’s general election kept Eagle River intact with one Senate seat. The board approved that version at its Monday meeting.
The five-member board met at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office to discuss whether another attempt should be made to redraw Alaska’s 40 House districts and 20 Senate districts. But the Republican-appointed members, who supported dividing Eagle River in two, said that likely would be futile.
John Binkley, chair of the redistricting board, said he didn’t agree with everything in the Supreme Court’s 144-page opinion, but that he respected the court’s authority. Binkley was appointed by then-Senate President Cathy Giessel, a Republican. He encouraged his fellow board members to approve the interim map, and said that “I think it will cause the least amount of disruption for the public.”
Budd Simpson, a board member appointed by Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, echoed Binkley, adding, “I think it would be disruptive and an exercise in futility to try to make any substantive changes, therefore, I believe the proposed proclamation is appropriate at this time.”
The board’s final map, approved Monday, can be challenged in Superior Court by any Alaska voter within 30 days.
Bethany Marcum, CEO of the conservative Alaska Policy Forum and another Dunleavy appointee, said that the court made clear that Eagle River should not divided, but she didn’t think it would be a “heavy lift” to discuss if there was a better way to comply with the decision.
“I just fear that by adopting the court-mandated plan that the board — the constitutional board — would be surrendering our discretion to the courts,” she said. “If we just accept this interim plan that the court directed us to use, they become the redistricting authority for this cycle — and I think that sets up tons of bad precedent.”
Marcum, a former aide to then-Sen. Dunleavy, was reappointed to the board last week by the governor. One day earlier she was narrowly rejected by the Legislature from serving on the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents.
Melanie Bahnke, president and CEO of Kawerak, Inc., was one of two redistricting board members opposed to giving Eagle River two Senate seats. Bahnke, an independent who was appointed by former Chief Justice Joel Bolger, said Monday that the courts had given the redistricting board a second chance last year to draw the state’s political boundaries, but that the majority of members had again approved a map that was found to be unconstitutional.
“So I don’t feel like this is being forced down our throats,” she said about the board’s final map.
There was a partisan divide in responses to April’s redistricting court decision. Lindsay Kavanaugh, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said that explicitly banning partisan gerrymandering in the state constitution would create a fair and equitable redistricting process for decades to come.
“I think that the implications here are extraordinarily significant,” Kavanaugh said.
Ann Brown, chair of the Alaska Republican Party, meanwhile, said through a prepared statement at the time that it appeared that the Alaska Supreme Court “relied on a new standard of evidence” to issue its decision: “That of inference rather than objective fact.”
“The Court inferred that because the three Republican appointees voted the same way, they must have had some improper agreement in advance rather than the logical inference that they each individually reached the same conclusion,” she said by text message.
Brown added that the court seemingly ignored that the two independent board members voted together to oppose the political maps, and that the justices “found nothing improper in their agreement.”
The state’s highest court described “secretive procedures” used to draw two Eagle River Senate districts to benefit Republicans, and admonished the board for making key decisions behind closed doors.
After April’s decision, Alaska became the 13th state to have its highest court interpret the state’s constitution to ban partisan gerrymandering. A further seven states have a statutory ban on partisan gerrymandering, according to Dan Vicuña, national redistricting manager at Common Cause, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that campaigns to end gerrymandering across the nation.
“Whether it happens in a red state or a blue state, a constitutional ban on partisan gerrymandering is always a landmark victory for the people,” Vicuña said in an interview. “The Alaska Supreme Court is recognizing — like a lot of state courts are recognizing — that they simply have to intervene when voting rights are under attack through gerrymandering.”