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The Alaska Redistricting Board voted 3-2 on Wednesday to approve the proclamation plan seeking to set the election districts for the state’s 40 house districts and pairings that compose the state’s 20 Senate districts. With tensions running high after the board’s conservatives pushed through Senate pairings that raised legal concerns and lacked any significant explanation or justification, board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke put up one final fight.
Both Bahnke and Borromeo, who are both Alaska Native, pulled no punches when arguing that the Senate pairings for the Anchorage-area—which split Eagle River’s two House districts into two different Senate districts—were both a racial and partisan gerrymander that favored conservatives and drew the entirety of the plan into question. One of the affected House districts is the very-diverse South Muldoon district and the other covers JBER but reaches all the way into downtown Anchorage.
Borromeo played into the record an audio recording from Monday where conservative member Bethany Marcum said the end-result would be greater representation for the conservative community: “This actually gives Eagle River the opportunity for more representation. They’re certainly not going to be disenfranchised by this process.”
“That’s the reason we’re doing what we’re doing today,” she said, “and that’s the reason why I’m not voting for this proclamation.”
Borromeo returned to the issue in her closing comments later in the meeting where she argued that there were five key points that ought to disqualify the plan:
- That the most reasonable senate pairing for Eagle River’s first house district was Eagle River’s second house district
- That Marcum never gave justification for why pairing the Eagle River districts together and the Muldoon districts together was not reasonable.
- That the chosen south Muldoon district that Marcum claimed was closely linked to Eagle River through commerce is not actually home to most of the area’s commerce (which would be the north Muldoon district) but instead largely a residential district
- She also said someone (likely Binkley judging by the context) told her that she had “won too much” already (the board narrowly approved her version of the Anchorage-area House maps) and it was time for “other people to get some wins.” She argued that redistricting shouldn’t be about balancing “wins” but about reflecting good, defensible decisions about how Alaskans should be represented.
- And finally, she drove home Marcum’s on-the-record comments:
“I played that for you and you’re going to hear it for the next several months because everybody that sues us is going to play it over and over again, too,” she said. “Far from being compelling rationale, her observation exposes the board to claims of racial and partisan gerrymandering in north and south Muldoon, which contains some of the highest minority voting age populations concentrations in Anchorage and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our country. The publicly stated goal of expanding Eagle River’s influence in the Legislature is not only an example of partisan gerrymandering, it is a direct path for future litigants to take us on in suing us.”
Borromeo closed her comments against the plan, noting “I pray litigation is swift and just.”
Bahnke was similarly critical of the board’s actions, arguing that the process over the final few days was an abuse of power that twisted the conduct in favor of the conservative trio’s efforts to rush the map through with little scrutiny. She said she was particularly sensitive to the muzzling of minority voters, noting that race issues had been on play during the board’s work when her own knowledge of rural Alaska was called into question.
“We deserve better as Alaskans whether we’re Republicans, Democrats, independents, urban, rural,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re all Alaskans.”
She closed by saying she at least felt optimistic that Alaskans were becoming increasingly aware of and engaged in changing the disparities that fed into the actions supported by the board’s majority.
Neither Marcum nor member Budd Simpson had any closing comments.
Chair John Binkley gave some largely superficial comments that talked more about process and visiting communities than any specifics contained in the plan.
“It’s unfortunate that everyone can’t be happy with what the plan is,” he said.
He said the public can now look over the plan and if they’re not happy with it, then they can sue.
“It really will depend on the facts that’s decided by the judiciary,” he said. “In the end we will have a fair plan.”
The approval of the proclamation plan opens a 30-day window for groups to file lawsuits against the plan. As was the case in the 2010 round of redistricting, it’s possible that the court could order minor tweaks to the plan ahead of the 2022 election—Senate pairings, for example—but save more significant alterations for the 2024 ballot.
One final dig
The day wasn’t without some heated acrimony.
When it came to the signature page of the proclamation, both Borromeo and Bahnke asked that their names be kept on the page but left blank to indicate their objection to the plan. Binkley suggested, instead, that their names be wiped from the final page if they didn’t want to sign it and support the maps.
“I think history will look back on this and I’d like it reflected that I was a member of the Alaska Redistricting Board and I chose not to sign this,” Bahnke said.
“You’ve already made that abundantly clear through the record and your vote,” Binkley said in defending his push to wipe their names from the final page of the report. He argued that the report should be for those who supported the report and that if they—two Alaska Native women—were really insistent on expressing their opposition to the plan they “could put together some kind of minority report.”
The suggestion landed with a thud for Borromeo, who along with Bahnke have leveled accusations of racial gerrymandering against the conservative members—who are all white.
“That’s funny, a minority report?” Borromeo said with scorn.
During the process, race has been a long-simmering issue. When it came to the layout of rural villages in the rural Alaska, Binkley questioned whether Bahnke—a resident of Nome and CEO and president of Alaska Native regional tribal consortium Kawerak, Inc.—knew the area and its connections as well as he did.
But Binkley pushed ahead. If they didn’t want to sign it, then he would have their names removed from the signature page of the report. Begrudingly, they signed. But as Bahnke revealed on Twitter, they didn’t sign with their names.
“I do not agree with this plan. M Bahnke.” Bahnke wrote above her name.
“I will not support a racial + partisan gerrymander of Muldoon. One senate pairing gone wrong is one too many.” Borromeo wrote above her name.
Binkley finally relented at the suggestion of the board’s legal counsel, Matt Singer, that an appropriate compromise would be to have signature boxes indicated who supported the plan and who opposed it. Both Bahnke and Borromeo agreed that it was a workable solution.
“We did insist that this one also be kept for public record purposes too,” Bahnke later wrote on Twitter about the initial signatory page.