Alaska Redistricting Board approves new maps (that aren’t that terrible)

After months of meetings and dozens of hearings held throughout the state, the Alaska Redistricting Board on Friday night approved new district boundaries for all 40 House districts in a process that ranged from congenial to downright tense at points over the last few days.

The process culminated in a high-stakes vote to determine whether the layout of the Anchorage-area districts would be drawn according to a proposal by board member Nicole Borromeo, who was appointed by former House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, and a proposal cobbled together at the last minute by Bethany Marcum, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. In the end, the board ultimately sided with Borromeo’s plan, presenting a largely fair and balanced approach to the area’s maps.

While the board has claimed to be above the politics, it was hard to ignore the fact that Marcum’s Anchorage map benefitted conservatives by pairing Democratic incumbents together and through an apparent attempt to minimize the votes of the East Anchorage neighborhoods, which represent some of the most diverse areas of the state. It was the dilution of the East Anchorage/Muldoon area into several districts—Eagle River (22), a South Anchorage district (10), the military base (21) and one truly East Anchorage District (20, which would be shared by two Democratic incumbents)—that was the focus of much of the day’s testimony. Here’s Marcum’s map:

V.3 by Bethany Marcum.

At one point in the last-minute revisions of the map, Marcum’s map was even more snaking and winding. The above effort was an effort to tighten it up, but it was still met with nearly universal opposition during the public testimony. (It was particularly telling that extreme right Anchorage Assemblywoman Jamie Allard and a staffer for Sen. Lora Reinbold accounted for half of the map’s support.) By comparison, here’s the map that Borromeo put forward:

V.4 by Nicole Borromeo.

Gone are the snaking districts replaced with straightforward and square-ish boundaries that largely follow the existing neighborhood lines and groupings. It was the proposal that was widely supported by community and neighborhood organizations in East Anchorage, who argued that it would give them better representation and a better voice in the Legislature.

In a particularly tense exchange, member Melanie Bahnke (appointed by former Supreme Court Justice Joel Bolger) attempted to put Marcum on the record with any concerns that Borromeo’s plan had in terms of constitutional requirements for districts to be compact, contiguous and socioeconomically integrated with as minimal population deviation as practicable. It was a particularly critical exchange, especially with the likelihood that anything the board does is subject to a legal challenge where pretty much anything and everything said at these hearings will be combed over.

In a remarkable moment, Marcum refused and claimed that it was not her place—as a member of the Alaska Redistricting Board—to criticize the work of other members. Bahnke pressed, arguing that it’s not as much criticism as it is trying to vet the plans against the very-serious constitutional requirements they’re facing.

“I’m sorry,” Marcum said, tears apparently welling in her voice, “I’m a Christian and I believe it’s not appropriate to criticize our fellow board members. I really resent the fact that you’ve put me in this position.”

Borromeo interjected: “First of all, Christianity has no bearing on what we’re doing here today.” She went on to dispute Marcum’s claim that pairing East Anchorage together with Eagle River was more reflective of the military base’s ties to the community than the plan she put together, which drew several areas neighboring the base into the military district.

The lone point of defense that Marcum could muster in defense of her plan was that it had apparently better deviations than the plan written by Borromeo. While her repeated assertion that “One person, one vote” should be the overarching goal, the board’s legal counsel regularly reminded them that the constitutional considerations put issues like compactness, contiguity and socioeconomic integration ahead of population deviation as considerations. It’s a point that board staff warned about early in the process, noting that while deviation was the most easily measurable metric it’s not the most important and overfocusing on deviation could create considerable problems with compactness and socioeconomic integration.

When Board Chair John Binkley, who was appointed by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, seemed to get uncomfortable with the arguing between Marcum and the other members, asking “what’s the point” of the fighting, Bahnke retorted that the constitution and its requirements matter.

And that’s what seemed to matter most with the fifth and ultimately deciding member of the decision, Budd Simpson (who was appointed by Gov. Dunleavy). When they reached a vote on the Anchorage-area maps, Simpson said he considered both maps to be acceptable in terms of population deviation but gave a slight edge to Marcum. He said both were acceptable in terms of compactness from a legal perspective but ultimately gave the edge to Borromeo’s map, noting that it was the more important of the two values. He ultimately joined Borromeo and Bahnke in approving Borromeo’s maps for the area.

No other area required a vote for the board to decide. The issues with Southeast Alaska had already been largely resolved (no incumbents redistricted together), there was a little bit of trading in rural districts that seemed to magically resolve much of the problems at the last minute and the Mat-Su area had little controversy (well, not from within the board). The Fairbanks area was another big discussion point following Binkley’s decision to slice off about 4,000 residents of the largely progressive-leaning Goldstream Valley to balance districts and place them in the rural Interior district. While it pushes that district, currently held by Republican Rep. Mike Cronk, to the left, it has the knock-on effect of turning several remaining Fairbanks-area districts to the right.

The board ultimately approved the entirety of the state map on a 4-1 vote with Marcum, still salty about the Anchorage-area decision, as the lone vote against the map.

Find various version of the final map here.

What it all means

On the whole, it’s a fairer outcome than most would have expected from the high-stakes process where Republicans controlled a majority of the seats. That’s a lot of credit to board members Borromeo and Bahnke for building a solid argument about the constitutional and legal requirements of the process, making the selection of the largely fair Anchorage-area map irrefutable. And credit to Budd Simpson for ignoring the political nature of his appointment and simply following what his eyes told him about the compactness of the maps.

If we’re talking about political fallout, Fairbanks Democrats took the worst of it by far—with some districts potentially tipping into solidly Republican numbers (I’m looking particularly at Rep. Grier Hopkins’ district)—while the Anchorage-area districts all generally remain as competitive as they were before redistricting. Democrats will need to make some decisions when it comes to incumbents—it pairs together Reps. Zack Fields and Harriet Drummond together into one district and Reps. Chris Tuck and Andy Josephson together in another—but left open are seats that could be prime spots for new voices to step up and win seats. The newly opened East Anchorage seat in particular could be a good spot for Anchorage to see its diversity reflected in its delegation. There’s potential changes around the edges that could make races far more different than first blush, but we really won’t see how that plays out quite yet.

Anchorage Daily News reporter James Brooks put the maps together with the list of the incumbent representatives here.

On the Republican side of things, there’s certainly some interesting pairings. Extreme right Republican Reps. David Eastman and Christopher Kurka—who are about as closely aligned on the fringe as anybody—now find themselves together in one district in Wasilla. Even before today, Eastman has been crying “set up” about the pairings:Pat Race @alaskarobotics#akleg Oh my. November 6th 20212 Retweets52 Likes

The other pairing for Republican incumbents is in Eagle River where moderate Rep. Kelly Merrick has been paired with Rep. Ken McCarty, leaving an open House district that happens to include the home of Anchorage Assemblymember Jamie Allard.

Left unchanged from the status quo is the representation in rural Alaska, the Peninsula and Souteast. Though there’s some shifting in the boundaries throughout all of the incumbents will stay within the bounds of the districts.

What’s next

The board’s staff is now putting together the official final version of the map, checking for potential drafting errors and that sort of thing. The big next decision point is the Senate pairings, which will have a huge impact on how the Senate’s balance of power is impacted after the next election. The board is set to take testimony on precisely this issue when it returns to business on Monday morning at 9 a.m. The information on that hearing is here.

The Senate pairings have far fewer requirements under the law than the House districts. When I was covering the lawsuit over the last round of redistricting, the Fairbanks-area plaintiffs successfully forced the board to consider an Fairbanks-specific Senate district (which ended up seeing both of the area’s Democratic incumbents lose to Republicans, instead of the original proposal where they would have been paired together in a half-city district). The pairings will also have an impact on just what seats are up on the 2022 ballot. Districts that are significantly different than the ones before it could see their terms shortened from four years to two.

And, of course, there’s the legal challenges.

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1 Comment on "Alaska Redistricting Board approves new maps (that aren’t that terrible)"

  1. brian mccarthy | November 6, 2021 at 8:16 pm | Reply

    Fairness comes to the Southern Kenai Peninsula in the new District 6, not only did Fritz Creek not get peeled away from Homer, Seldovia, Halibut Cove and the South side of Kachemak Bay got added back into the District. Also loosing some of South Soldotna makes this district much more competitive for Sarah Vance.

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