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The closing days and hours of the Alaska Redistricting Board were, as I’ve written about at great length already, a lot.
Many months of hearings and debate came to a rushed, frustrating close as the board’s trio of Republican-appointed members bulldozed their way to the finish line. With loads of attention on the questionable pairings of Eagle River with East Anchorage, there was a lot more that slipped by including, but not limited to, a completely new and still-unexplained change to the Anchorage-area senate pairings and an ugly attempt to erase the contributions of the board’s Alaska Native women.
The board even spiked an independent-appointed member’s proposal to flip a coin in what, at the time, seemed like just another flex of the conservative majority’s power. But thanks to an eagle-eyed observer’s breakdown of the end result of that decision, it appears that even that move helped tip the political scales.
The tale of a conspicuously skipped coinflip
It started with a simple enough proposal: Let’s flip a coin.
That was the recommendation of Alaska Redistricting Board member Melanie Bahnke during the board’s Nov. 9 meeting to determine the allocation of Senate seats, determining which seats would be up in 2022 and which would be up in 2024. She argued that at the end of a process that was fast devolving into accusations of partisan influence they could at least do something that would be beyond reproach.
“It just avoids the appearance of trying to protect any incumbents,” Bahnke argued. “There’s no room for debate over partisan decision-making.”
“I would disagree with that,” argued board chair John Binkley, a line that the Republican appointee used frequently in the closing days of the hearing to dismiss the litany of concerns raised by the board’s two independent-appointed members, Bahnke and member Nicole Borromeo. “I don’t think it’s partisan. I’m going to oppose the motion.”
With the support of his fellow Republican-appointed members, he shot down the motion to decide allocation by coinflip. When Bahnke suggested then they start by assigning Senate Seat A to 2024 it was member Bethany Marcum, a Dunleavy appointee who had drawn several maps that had a uncanny a knack of lumping Democratic incumbents together, with the accusation of politics. If Bahnke wanted that specific pairing, Marcum reasoned, then there must be some ulterior motive.
“I think it’s just chronologically logical to go 2-4-2-4, starting with A,” she said. “It seems there’s some sort of political reason or whatever that the maker of the motion wants to start with 4, which is not the most logical number in the order.”
Marcum reiterated the claim that the board had no knowledge of where incumbents lived or how these would affect the political landscape. It was a claim that you could doubt given, well, everything that had happened up until that point (her maps in particular), but leave it to member Budd Simpson to tip their hand. While considering Bahnke’s motion, Simpson wondered what would happen with an existing district that had a legislator on a term that would be expiring in 2022 but would be in a district that wouldn’t be up to 2024. A staff member told Simpson the board can’t extend Senate terms. That senator would have to run in 2022.
But that exchange raised alarm bells for Bahnke, who interjected that it looked like Simpson had information that others didn’t.
“You seem to have information that I don’t have in terms of existing term ending points. I don’t have that information. Somehow you’ve got a different piece of paper than mine that has a starting date,” Bahnke said. “I am requesting that I have the same information that you and Budd have that you’re sharing over there.”
She also added that if Marcum was so concerned about the appearance of partisan influence, then she shouldn’t have objected to the coinflip in the first place.
Once again, Binkley dismissed Bahnke’s concerns. They were just notes, he said, and there was nothing untoward going on. He then hurried up the vote, which saw Bahnke’s motion rejected and Marcum’s motion of putting Senate Seat A up in 2022 approved along the 3-2 vote that defined much of the final days of the board’s actions.
The impact of the decision
In the immediate aftermath it wasn’t clear what the impact would have on the elected officials. The board’s documents weren’t entirely clear and neither were the audio recordings of the meetings. Even folks who were closely following the process in real-time didn’t have an immediate understanding of what happened because, after all, there was a lot going on. When I saw that it resulted in a plan that would see 19 of the 20 senators up for election in 2022, it didn’t necessarily ring any alarm bells. Nearly everyone’s up, I thought, that doesn’t seem like the worst of things.
At least rthat was the case until blogger Steven Aufrecht of “What do I know” (a blog that still serves as an invaluable source of in-the-weeds coverage of the last round of redistricting among many other issues) published this post on Sunday entitled: AK Redistricting Board GOP Members Use Allocation To Punish Moderate Republicans
Aufrecht points out that the allocation schedule not only decides what years legislators would be up for election (a potentially big deal when it decides who’s on presidential years and who’s not) but whether or not they’d end up with extra elections along the way. That’s because of the way truncation—whether districts were different enough to warrant a new election—and existing terms interact with the new schedule.
Take Senate District A for example. There, moderate Republican Sen. Bert Stedman won his most recent election in 2020, which would have put his next election in 2024. Instead, he’ll need to now run in 2022 in order for Senate District A to get on the schedule approved by the board’s conservatives. Over in Senate District B, which is held by Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl, the flipside is the case. His district is up in 2024 but because he won his seat in 2018 his term will run out in 2022, requiring him to run then and then again in 2024.
The net impact of the plan, as Aufrecht points out, is a wash for Democrats. The same number—four—will get an extra election whatever schedule the board approved.
It’s a bigger deal, though, for the Republican side of the ticket. And, surprise, it splits almost perfectly down the line of solidly pro-Dunleavy Republicans and everyone else.
(Also, it’s probably worth noting here that Binkley ran the anti-Recall Dunleavy PAC.)
Aufrecht breaks down the incumbent Republicans into two camps: The moderate Republicans who work with Democrats—that’d be Sens. Stedman, Stevens, Bishop and Revak—and the Republicans who sometimes work with Democrats—Sens. Micciche and Wilson. (While that’s loosely accurate, I would suggest it might be better termed as Republicans who are never on Dunleavy’s side and Republicans who sometimes not on Dunleavy’s side. (You don’t have to be a liberal to have a problem with Dunleavy.)) That group of six legislators go from requiring no additional elections (except for moderate Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof, who was drawn into Dunleavy Republican Sen. Mia Costello’s district) to needing a whopping six new elections. Every single moderate and kinda-moderate Republican will face an additional election thanks to the plan approved by Binkley and company, per Aufrecht’s analysis.
Meanwhile, the Dunleavy Republicans (Sens. Shower, Hughes, Myers, Holland and Reinbold) all coincidentally escape the need for an extra election. They need just one, which would be the Costello/von Imhof seat.
As Aufrecht concludes, the goal of the allocation and all the bizarre refusals by the conservative majority to leave it up to nonpartisan chance is clear:
“So, the impact on Republican Senators was the reason the GOP-appointed Board members were not even going to discuss why they were so hell bent on doing it their way and rammed this through over the objections of the two Independent appointed Board members,” explains Aufrecht, going into quite a bit of detail about how the board was able to thread the needle on this issue. “They weren’t able to make it work out perfectly, but they get every one of the Moderate Republicans and even the sometimes Moderate Republicans to run an extra election and all but one of the loyal Dunleavy Republicans got a free pass on the extra election from allocation.”
Why it matters
The redistricting process is supposed to be nonpartisan. Members are not supposed to have any special insight on where incumbents live and aren’t supposed to be mapping with a political outcome in mind.
With everything from new election districts to ranked-choice voting and open primaries, it’s hard to forecast what impact this will have on the political landscape. The more elections, though, the more opportunities candidates will have to knock off these Republicans who aren’t entirely bought in on the Dunleavy agenda (as was the case with Sens. John Coghill and Cathy Giessel). It’s likely not the sort of thing that can be challenged in court, but it is illustrative of the work that has to be done to unpack and understand the full scope of the board’s actions, many of which were not made in full view of the public.
The shoddy decision-making and incomplete record also makes the job of anyone challenging the plan in court—a proposition that Binkley seemed to suggest was easy and available to everyone—that much more difficult. The window for lawsuits challenging the Alaska Redistricting Board’s plan closes in mid-December.
The moment John Binkley was appointed was the exact moment this board’s gerrymandering was guaranteed.