State of the Maps: Breaking down the five lawsuits challenging the Alaska Redistricting Board

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The Alaska Redistricting Board is facing five separate legal challenges to the maps it approved last month through what was a largely ugly and opaque process as the months of meetings and process gave way to naked partisanship. In this post, I’ll break down the five lawsuits, where they’re coming from, their claims and whatever background I might be able to offer.

The initial legal filings, which were due on last Friday, are all available on the Alaska Redistricting Board’s website, which Board Counsel Matt Singer said will be updated with “significant documents” (aka, an incomplete record of the lawsuits). A better source to keep up with the filings will be the Alaska Court System’s most requested case files page.

The lawsuits challenge five areas of the plan: The Anchorage Senate pairings, pretty much everything with the Mat-Su maps, Skagway’s disconnect from Downtown Juneau, Valdez’s forced inclusion with the Mat-Su and the make-up of two House districts in Southwest Alaska. Another motion has been filed in defense of the rural Interior district as it is currently drawn.

A judge has already consolidated all of the lawsuits into a single case that will be heard in Anchorage. They’ve scheduled a status/scheduling hearing for next Monday.

Anchorage Senate appeal

Who’s filing them: East Anchorage residents Felisa Wilson, George Martinez and Yarrow Silvers. They have backing from the union-backed Alaskans for Fair Redistricting.

What their concerns are: The division of East Anchorage communities by pairing one with Eagle River and the other with the U-Med house district. This is the pairing that was the focus of much of the disputes during the drawing of the maps with board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke raising serious concerns about it being an effort to gerrymander the conservative Eagle River into more representation, which board member Bethany Marcum quite literally said would be the outcome of the plan. Their filing specifically challenges the pairing of one Eagle River district with the south Muldoon district, a pairing that crosses a vast and largely unoccupied mountain range. “They were paired are not ‘contiguous’ as that term is defined and interpreted under Alaska law,” argues the suit.

Other concerns raised: This suit also accuses the board of violating the Open Meetings Act for the process that led pairings, specifically that the board went into an executive session to discuss the potential legal issues with the proposal to only emerge the following morning with a completely different plan with no explanation or justification. Per the lawsuit: “The board unlawfully used executive sessions to permit a majority of its members to reach an agreement regarding pairings without public notice or observation. This misuse of executive sessions constitutes a blatant and egregious violation of the Open Meetings Act, the Alaska Constitution, as well as the Board’s own policies and procedures.”

What they want: An order declaring the two Eagle River senate districts unconstitutional, barring the state from conducting an election under this proposal. It also seeks to compel the board to adopt the pairings proposed by member Bahnke or a “lawful pairings that place both Eagle River house districts in a single senate district and pair East Anchorage house districts with contiguous communities of interest.” It also is seeking a declaration that the board violating both statutory and constitutional law with its Open Meetings Act violations.

Background: Just how much leeway the Alaska Redistricting Board has with Senate pairings isn’t not entirely clear. It was an issue raised in the last round of redistricting, but never reached a point where the Supreme Court weighed in (instead, the court ruled that the board’s entire process was flawed and sent them back to the drawing board). So you might hear some people say that the board can do whatever it wants with Senate pairings as long as they are contiguous, but others—like in this suit—argue otherwise.

The Mat-Su appeal

Who’s filing them: The Mat-Su Borough and its mayor Mike Brown. Republican attorney Stacey Stone is also running this suit.

What their concerns are: The argument here is that the board packed the Mat-Su area districts and effectively deprived them of the additional representation that they feel due thanks to the growth in population. Under the U.S. Census, the ideal population for a district is 18,355 and every single one of the Mat-Su area districts are about 2% or more above that mark. The lawsuit, for some reason, adds the deviations together to argue that the Mat-Su region is overpopulated by 13.75%… which really isn’t how you’d go about determining just how over- or underpopulated a region is. There’s also some arguments over the communities that the Mat-Su was paired with, with Valdez being a particular sticking point (this was brought up several times by board member Marcum during the hearings, but they couldn’t find an alternative during the process). Anyways, the suit argues that the overall impact on the Mat-Su is to essentially dilute and diminish the voices of their voters.

On the Valdez connection: They’re particularly bothered by the decision to connect parts of the Mat-Su Borough with Valdez in House District 29 (pictured above). Of that the suit has this to say: “The Final Plan places Valdez in a district not with any pipeline-affected communities on the Richardson Highway while simultaneously segregating Valdez from other Prince William Sound communities. … those populations share no social concerns, political needs, are geographically divided, are culturally and historically distinct areas, areas with no transportation links, and areas with no shared economic activities. This District ignores logical, municipal, and natural boundaries.”

What they want: They want the entirety of the board’s final plan to be found in violation of “the United States and/or Alaska Constitutions” and redrawn to comply with the U.S. and/or Alaska Constitutions.

Background: While this lawsuit talks about some of the disconnects between the various districts, it seems that they are leaning heavily on population deviation as the main concern here. While hewing districts as close as possible to the ideal population is, well, ideal, it’s not the top priority in the legal precedent. That would be compact, contiguous and relatively socioeconomically integrated. The board has substantial leeway when it comes to population deviation, especially if minimizing it would come at the expense of the other factors. From the board’s own discussions, it seems like you’d have to get up to the 5% range to start raising legal issues. And, by the way, the crown for the highest population deviation doesn’t belong to any Mat-Su district. That’d be House District 40, which is 2.67% above.

Skagway and Valdez appeals

Two-for-one: These are actually two separate lawsuits but they’re both similar in nature and run by attorney Robin Brena, who’s been on loads of different high-profile cases like the TAPS valuation suit.

Who’s filing this: The Skagway suit is brought by the Skagway Borough and Borough Manager Brad Ryan. The Valdez suit is brought by the city of Valdez and Valdez City Manager Mark Detter.

What their concerns are: Valdez feels the same way about the Mat-Su as the Mat-Su feels about it. Neither want to be paired together. The Valdez suit argues essentially the same thing that the Mat-Su lawsuit does, arguing that in the final map “Existing and historical district configurations are ignored, political and municipal subdivision lines are violated, natural and geographical boundaries are transgressed, communities of interest are fractured, and many of the resulting districts are neither contiguous, compact, nor socio-economically integrated—all in violation of the Alaska Constitution.” Here, the Valdez suit actually argues that the board placed too much emphasis on minimizing population deviation and that they could’ve gone higher in order to maintain issues of compactness, contiguity and socio-economic integration. They argue that they would be better suited in the rural Interior district that includes much of the Richardson Highway communities (which will come up later). The same concerns are raised in the Skagway lawsuit, which argues that it should be paired with the downtown Juneau/Douglas district rather than the one covering the Mendenhall Valley. The suit argues that Skagway’s tourism industry makes a strong connection with the downtown Juneau district, representing similar interests and industries.

Open meetings act concerns: Both suits also flag potential violations of the Open Meetings Act, arguing that the final decisions on the maps were made in a fashion that barred input from the affected communities. They argue that the final plan should have also gone out for public comment, noting that “the testimony and evidence submitted to the Board was largely ignored.”

What they want: To have the plan thrown out, bar it from being used in any elections and rewire them to redraw the plan. They’re also looking for a declaration that the board violated the Open Meetings Act.

Calista Corporation appeal

Who’s filing this: Calista Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation, as well as shareholders William Naneng and Harley Sundown.

What their concerns are: They argue that the final plan improperly dilutes the voting power of Calista region voters by excluding Scammon Bay, Hooper Bay and Chevak from House District 38, which is centered around Bethel, and by excluding Kwigillingok, Kongiganak and Quinhagak from the House District 37, which is centered around Dillingham and covers much of Southwest Alaska. The board opted to include in House District 37 the village of Tyonek, which is in the Cook Inlet and part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The lawsuit argues that the end result of the current layout diminishes the voting power of the Calista-region voters specifically when it comes to voting for a Senator. The proposed changes, they argue, “would allow for District 37 to be adequately populated by Calista villages in the lower Kuskokwim Delta without moving Tyonek into District 37. This would also appropriately increase the Calista Region’s advantage in Senate District S, better reflecting the Region’s population total of nearly 1.5 ideal house districts.”

What they want: For the plan to be ruled invalid as a violation of the U.S. and Alaska constitutions as well as in violation of the Voting Rights Act. And for the board to be sent back to the drawing board with the above mentioned changes.

A counter suit

Who’s filing this: A coalition of Alaska Native organizations headlined by Doyon, Ltd., Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Fairbanks Native Association.

What their concerns are: The end result of any potential changes from the above lawsuits, particularly the one brought by the Mat-Su Borough, would impact the rural Interior district that wraps around the Fairbanks North Star Borough to collect many Interior villages as well as other Interior road-system communities. It was a hard-fought win for the Interior villages, who’ve long wanted to see a united district. That accomplishment would be at risk is pretty much anyone else got their way and force a wholesale redrawing of the maps. Representatives for Doyon have argued that their communities are not well represented currently and have little in common with the rural costal districts. This lawsuit seeks to preserve “unified and effective representation for Alaska Native individuals and villages in the Interior region of Alaska.”

What they want: To keep the rural Interior district the same as it currently is.

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