Is proportional representation the same as equal representation?
Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant, who represents Anchorage’s lone one-seat district, argues it’s not and hopes a newly approved charter amendment proposition will fix that.
On a vote of 9-2, the Anchorage Assembly approved a charter amendment proposition for the April 7, 2020 local election that would ask voters to expand the 11-member Assembly by one additional member who would be assigned to the downtown district currently represented only by Constant.
For Constant, the issue of equal representation has been a long-running issue. He said with a single representative, his constituents are put at a disadvantage on the Assembly. Without a second member, the district is left without a voice if Constant is unable to attend a meeting or has a conflict of interest on an issue.
Additionally, there’s fewer opportunities for people in the downtown district to run for office because there’s only one seat up for election every three years instead of two seats up every three years as other districts have.
“(Assembly District 1 residents) have half the opportunity as every district in this town and it’s not fair, it’s not equal and I believe it’s not constitutional,” Constant said in an interview with The Midnight Sun.
The new member wouldn’t be seated until district maps can be redrawn according to the 2020 census, which would expand the downtown district’s population significantly while slightly shrinking the other five districts that are all currently represented by two members. In an interview, Constant said he would expect the 12th seat to be on the 2022 ballot at the latest.
“All other districts would get smaller and ours would get bigger, but that’s one of the benefits to the people outside downtown because proportionally speaking they would have better access to their elected representatives,” he said, noting that assembly districts are currently larger than the Legislature’s senate districts. “This gets us to a more equitable situation.”
Constant also noted that Assembly District 1 which includes downtown, South Addition, Mountain View, Government Hill and Fairview, is the city’s only district where minorities represent a majority of the population.
The Assembly heard testimony that was broadly supportive of the move with testifiers noting that the single seat put the residents of the downtown assembly district at a disadvantage compared to other districts.
The two dissenting votes came from Eagle River Assemblymembers Fred Dyson and Crystal Kennedy. Kennedy said she worried that adding additional member would unfairly dilute Eagle River’s voice on the assembly.
“The concern in Chugiak Eagle River is that we then actually ended up diluting the vote,” she said. “For us having to get six votes now to side with something going on in Eagle River can often be a challenge. Now it would have to be seven. So it tends to be a fairness issue for Chugiak Eagle River.”
When asked if Chugiak/Eagle River should go back to being a single-member district (as it was before Downtown was made into a single-member district), both Dyson and Kennedy objected saying that Chugiak/Eagle River is spread out and its own community. Dyson said all districts are concerned with the well-being of downtown but said the reverse isn’t always true.
According to assembly documents, the new seat would cost an estimated $61,900 annually. If the seat is approved in time for the 2021 election, it would cost about $43,935 for the remainder of that year.
The Anchorage Assembly also approved a second proposition for the 2020 election that would ask voters to approve on-site consumption of marijuana (we’ll have more on that in a separate post).
Why it matters
The addition of a 12th member would give the district an additional opportunity to elect a member who reflects the district’s incredibly diverse population, something that’s been glaringly absent in both local and state elections.
On a political level, the addition of the seat creates some new issues.
First, it’d raise the bar for passing legislation to seven votes. It’s a move that Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar said would likely lead to a more “lowercase-c conservative” assembly because it would become more difficult to pass legislation, which he said wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing because it’d require sponsors to make a better case for their priorities.
What’s less clear is how six equal-sized districts would shift the political layout of districts in the area. On the state level, redistricting has been an effective tool to bolster conservative seats while concentrating progressive votes into fewer districts.
Constant said he’s heard such concerns but said all those arguments should take a backseat to ensuring that Anchorage voters have equal and proportional representation.
“Do the right thing today and then sort the political problem out later,” he said.