Redistricting destined for do over
Alaska's Supreme Court sent the state's electoral redistricting plan back to the drawing board in a divided decision last week. After a contentious year of plans, redos and court mandates, the complex map that determines how our legislature is made up is still undecided.
After much disagreement about district changes, especially in southeast Alaska, an interim plan was adopted for the 2012 elections.
Among other changes, that plan expanded Senate District T - an office held by Senator Donny Olson.
"With redistricting taking effect, the new senate district we live in is larger than Texas," Olson wrote in a December newsletter?"It has 90 communities and 10 school districts? In fact, it is so large that five of the 13 regional Native corporations have member communities in the district? As a result, the issues my office will work on have become more diverse.?
That diversity makes for a challenging job when it comes to representing the people when he goes to Juneau.
"We have to work harder and smarter because our senate district has grown in size," Olson wrote?"Now I represent Alaskans from the Upper Yukon and Copper River regions in addition to Alaskans from the upper half of the state."
Last week the court ruled that the interim plan did not sufficiently follow Alaska's constitutional requirements for voting districts, a condition they were asked to meet in a high court decision earlier in the year. In that case, the redistricting board was ordered to redraw its plan in accordance with the Hickel process — a system determined by an early '90s Alaska Supreme Court case.
"All the disruptions of redistricting that are necessarily endured every 10 years will be repeated in the next two," states the final supreme court opinion. "The cause of this drastic remedy, according to the majority opinion, is the Board's use of unchallenged districts in devising a Hickel plan."
The Hickel process requires the board to draw up voting districts with first Alaska's constitutional requirements in mind, and then determine if the plan meets federal voting laws. Those requirements are often incredibly difficult to meet simultaneously.
Deviation from Alaska constitutional requirements are then allowed only if it is the sole way to comply with federal mandate.
On Friday the Supreme Court determined that process was not properly followed. When the board drew up the interim plan, 36 districts remained unchanged. The court majority argued that those unchanged districts were drawn up with federal voting act requirements in mind, not Alaska's constitutional requirements.
Not every member of the court disagreed with the board's plan, however. Justice Dana Fabe and Senior Justice Warren Matthews acknowledged the significant challenge of complying with both state and federal requirements when drawing out complex and varied voting districts of the nation's largest state. They maintained that the plan as it stood was practical in the face of that challenge.
There has been significant concern throughout this process that the Alaska Native voice in the legislature has been lessened by the new plan.
"Redistricting has altered the legislative landscape for Alaska," Olson wrote. "Rural Alaska has lost seats and therefore some influence in the legislature."
This kind of change and dissension is a part of how the current electoral system works, said recently elected House Representative Benjamin Nageak of Barrow.
"As long as we have elections, the winner of the administrative side of our state government, every 10 years following a statewide population count, gets to appoint a redistricting board," Nageak wrote in an email. "Which in turn draws new districts looking at places where population changes have occurred... Historically every decision to redistrict has changed elections to some degree and we have lived with them since statehood."
Any major changes to this process and the resulting districts really need to be made at a more fundamental level, Nageak said, by electing leaders that will make those major changes.
"If people are concerned about or have heartburn about this system, it is within their power to change it," Nageak wrote, "by voting for whichever party they want to vote for — since it is the governor who selects the redistricting board."
The people must take part in these decisions both by choosing leadership and remaining informed and vocal throughout the process, he said.
"The percentage of people who vote has been historically low for many decades," Nageak wrote. "If people are serious about changing the system, they must vote. Until people start getting serious about learning about issues and decisions that are being made by the people we elect, the system will continue for the foreseeable and unforeseeable future."
Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.