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We’re continuing the recap of the Alaska Redistricting trial with two cases that are so closely linked that they were essentially merged during the course of the trial. We’re talking about the uneasy marriage of the Mat-Su Borough and Valdez. It’s an arrangement that generated legal challenges from both communities, which argue that their grouping into House District 29 violates the requirements for socioeconomic integration. It’s a tricky case because satisfying the community’s demand to be moved into the Richardson Highway communities would require a substantial overhaul of House District 36. The prospect of that reshuffling drew the intervention of a coalition of Alaska Native groups helmed by Doyon, Limited, which argues that the map—which unites Interior Alaska Native communities under a single legislative district—should be maintained.
At the heart of this case is whether the rules for redistricting in Alaska should take into account cultural boundaries of Alaska Native communities and, if so, how much weight they should be given in comparison to white communities. The Alaska Redistricting Board, in breaking from previous boards, clearly strove to respect those cultural boundaries—specifically the division between Interior communities and Bering Strait communities.
Here’s the key bullet points of the case that were published on the final day of their witness testimony, the following sections are from the newsletter and are published in chronological order.
The key points, Jan. 28, 2022
The Mat-Su and Valdez plaintiffs this week focused in on the following key points:
- There’s zero socio-economic connection between Mat-Su and Valdez, especially when it comes to their political interests (oil and gas property taxes, fish taxes, port funding).
- That the better fit for Valdez is with the Richardson Highway district that spans from Glenallen to Fairbanks and all the way around grabbing all the Interior Athabascan communities. They propose maps that would reconfigure the district, removing the Interior Athabascan communities with variations that would see them paired with Inupiaq communities on the Bering Strait.
- That consideration for municipal boundaries ought to supersede consideration of the boundaries created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. They argue that the precedent gives more weight to municipal boundaries and Alaska Native Corporations are not due any special consideration under law.
- That the board bungled the process from the get-go. Board members approached the process with specific goals—Board Chair John Binkley wanted to keep Fairbanks’ population within its five House districts—that had a cascade of consequences that left Valdez out in the cold. The timing also prevented the board from considering alternatives.
- That the board was giving preferential treatment to Doyon, Limited and Ahtna, Inc., which both sought to have their communities united in a single House district, that when paired with the last-minute decision on Fairbanks’ excess population meant there was no room for Valdez. On this point, the Valdez plaintiffs argue a series of texts between board member Nicole Borromeo and folks with ties to Doyon, Limited are evidence of favoritism. They also suggest board counsel Matt Singer’s ongoing work with Ahtna biased his legal advice.
The Alaska Redistricting Board and the Doyon intervenors group counter the above points with the following arguments:
- Valdez and Mat-Su are at least relatively socio-economically integrated, citing that both communities have some reliance on the oil and gas industry (Valdez through its TAPS infrastructure and Mat-Su through its number of oil and gas industry workers). They’ve also highlighted road connections and the fact that Mat-Su is home to the Valdez’s closest big box stores.
- That the cultural differences between the Interior Athabascan communities and the coastal Inupiaq communities should be respected. They argue that the current layout of the rural Interior district is relatively socio-economically integrated, arguing that the Athabascan communities share more in common with the Richardson corridor communities (particularly the Ahtna communities) than with neighboring Bering Strait communities. They also argue that the Valdez plaintiffs are poor judges of the complexities of the Alaska Native communities.
- They argue that the plans do respect municipal boundaries and that the boundaries of the Alaska Native Corporations, as well as the rural school districts, ought to carry weight when drawing maps and considering socio-economic integration.
- They’ve defended the process, arguing that the record the Valdez and Mat-Su plaintiffs are using for their allegations don’t paint a full and clear picture of everything that happened. They don’t argue with the fact that Chair Binkley wanted to keep the Fairbanks communities together (a move that would have required each district to be about 4.3% above the ideal population) but argue that it wasn’t a fatal flaw. Board member Bethany Marcum testified at length about last-minute attempts to accommodate Valdez in any district outside of the Mat-Su, including Anchorage, but said it wasn’t possible.
- As for the texts that the Valdez plaintiffs argue is evidence of preferential treatment, member Borromeo defended it as being responsive to public outreach. The Doyon intervenors argue that it was well within their right to engage aggressively with the board and shape the maps but deny getting preferential treatment because of it. As for Singer’s ongoing involvement with Ahtna, board chair Binkley largely attempted to shrug it off as unimportant.
The Mat-Su Borough puts on its case, Jan. 24, 2022
The Mat-Su plaintiffs got their turn in court today, challenging the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decision to overpopulate the region’s house districts and pair a chunk of the borough’s eastern region with Valdez. As it was on Friday, today was a sliver of an actual trial with the plaintiffs’ opening argument and direct testimony already contained in pre-filed documents (you can find the Mat-Su’s opening arguments here). The case, which was brought by the Mat-Su Borough, is closely linked with the case brought by the city of Valdez—who will get its turn tomorrow—with the shared goal of breaking the two up and redrawing maps pretty significantly.
And that made for a somewhat more trial-y trial day.
That’s because the two plaintiffs with a shared goal meant that Robin Brena, the attorney for the Valdez plaintiffs, got a chance to cross examine the Mat-Su witnesses in what was essentially a double-dip of direct testimony as he built his case that Valdez and the Mat-Su Borough shouldn’t share a House district. Borough Manager Mike Brown provided perhaps the clearest testimony about the disparities between the Mat-Su and Valdez, noting that not only did they not have shared interests, but they were frequently at odds with each other.
“What I’d say, generally speaking, is we lack a number of common interests,” he said, focusing on the ferry system that many Mat-Su area legislators (and Gov. Mike Dunleavy) have targeted for cuts in recent years, of which he later added, “It is not a top priority for the Mat-Su Borough, I suspect Valdez would see it differently.”
Socio-economic integration will be a key issue in the Mat-Su and Valdez cases because the rules for House districts is much more clearly laid out than the light-touch approach that the Alaska Constitution has for Senate districts.
All that being said, though, it’s still hard to get a clear look at the entirety of the trial or where it might be headed given today’s action is only a piece of the puzzle. We can at least clue in on the main points of contention by watching where the Alaska Redistricting Board and, in this case, the attorney for the group formed around Doyon, Limited are putting their attention during cross examination. The Doyon, Limited group intervened in the lawsuit to defend the rural Interior district as approved by the board (it would be the key target for the nearly 4,000 Valdez residents).
A common thread that carried over from the East Anchorage plaintiffs’ argument on Friday to today is whether the residents of a House district (or in the East Anchorage plaintiffs’ case, a Senate district) should be able to travel throughout the district without leaving its boundaries. That’s not the case for Valdez in the latest map. As you can see in the map below, Valdez residents would have to travel through the rural Interior district, House District 36, in order to reach the rest of the district in Mat-Su.
Brena called it an “orphaned” city during questioning with Valdez city Mayor Sharon Scheidt (who was taken out of order today because this trial really is just a jumble at this point).
But whether the drivability of a legislative district carries any weight is yet to be seen. Both the Alaska Redistricting Board and the Doyon, Limited group have argued against this, noting that it’s not specifically required in the Alaska Constitution. They also argue that the requirement for being able to drive within a district fails as soon as it’s applied to the state’s many rural districts. I can think of at least a few urban legislative districts under the last round of redistricting that would’ve failed this test. It should be kept in mind, though, that something’s not automatically constitutional if it hasn’t been challenged before.
The Mat-Su plaintiffs’ expert witness, Stephen Colligan, argued that roads and cars are applicable for urban districts and that each region’s traditional means of transportation—whether it be cars, planes or ferries—should be taken into consideration when judging contiguity of a district. He ran into some trouble on this point, though, because of his work with the GOP-leaning Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, which proposed a legislative district that would have violated this notion of connectivity by linking Anchorage’s Hillside with a strip of the Kenai Peninsula that would’ve reached all the way into Nikiski:
The Alaska Redistricting Board and the Doyon, Limited group also brought the same argument to bear against the Mat-Su’s case that the board have improperly overpopulated the Mat-Su region districts. Here, the plaintiffs argue the region’s districts are too far above the ideal population for a district and therefore it’s watering down their voting power in the Alaska Legislature. The defenders of the plan argue, though, that there’s no clear precedent on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable when it comes to the size of a district.
The day also included a fair bit of criticism from Colligan about the board’s process. He argued that the board frittered away precious time with its individualistic approach to mapping that led to members getting dug in on specific concepts that left little time for meaningful resolution at the end of the process. They argued among themselves too much, Colligan said, instead of trying to work out an effective solution. One of the refrains we heard throughout the day was that while the process is meant to try to balance interests, was there any requests that Fairbanks, Doyon or Ahtna didn’t get? The point being that Board Chair John Binkley, a Fairbanks resident, played favoritism with how the board weighed different requests.
Whether that carries water though, is dubious.
Why it matters: With a population of nearly 4,000, finding a new home for Valdez is going to be an enormous task that would effectively require a wholesale redrawing of the maps with the biggest loser likely being the Doyon, Limited group. Doyon, Limited (and Binkley) fought hard for an Interior district that united the Alaska Native corporation’s villages after seeing them split in some pretty wonky ways in the last round of map drawing. The proposals presented today by Mat-Su and Valdez would see a major reshuffling of the Interior villages and a return of the Fairbanks-to-coast district we saw in the 2012 elections (that was later overturned).
Here’s one example:
In search of loving home: Valdez, Jan. 26, 2022
The last two days of the trial challenging the Alaska Redistricting Board have been focused in on the complaint raised by the city of Valdez over its inclusion in a House district that leans heavily in the direction of the Mat-Su Borough. Their complaint argues the board overlooked the city’s more natural connections to the Prince Williams Sound district (where it was located prior to the 2000 round of redistricting) or the Richardson Highway district that reaches up to the Interior (where it’s been since 2000). In the grand scheme of things, it’s a particularly interesting problem because relocating the nearly 4,000 people who live in Valdez would force significant upheaval in the rest of the maps. The city’s preferred solution of moving them into the Richardson Highway district, which reaches up from Delta Junction and Tok into the rural Interior villages that compose the Doyon, Limited region, would force a reconfiguration that would ripple all the way out to the Bering Sea.
The case started out with an establishment of Valdez’s unhappy marriage with the Mat-Su, particularly when it comes to its current representation out of the valley. While they seem to be reasonably fine with Sutton Republican Rep. George Rauscher, they had nothing good to say about Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower. Valdez City Clerk Sheri Pierce was particularly critical. Shower has never visited Valdez, never phoned into a town hall and, she said, refuses to take their meetings in Juneau. She and others also noted that Shower was a supporter of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to seize the local property taxes levied oil and tax infrastructure, which would have seen some $40 million of Valdez’s annual income vanish.
“I don’t know why Valdez should be singled out as being OK that the socio-economic ties are not there. It just seemed to me that they worked very hard to make sure all of these other areas in this large district of House District 36 … (had) those socio-economic ties present,” she said. “We seem to get what’s left, and I don’t think that’s fair. … (In terms of representation) we have gone from good to bad to horrible, in my opinion. This particular map seems to be the very worst scenario for us.”
Their current district is about 40% Mat-Su while the one approved by the board would be more than 70% Mat-Su.
Alaska Redistricting Board counsel Matt Singer argued the Alaska Constitution has guidelines for drawing House districts—that they be contiguous, compact, relatively socio-economically integrated and have minimal population deviation—and there isn’t a fifth category requiring maps produce representation that communities like.
Turning their attention away from the issue of socio-economic integration and representation, the attorneys focused a lot on the alternative maps produced by the Valdez plaintiffs (which were submitted after the board’s deadline for consideration). Putting it lightly, the maps would be a significant departure from the finalized plan and would be felt particularly hard by the Interior Athabascan communities that stand to be united under the board’s final plan.
That the maps were produced by Kimball Brace—a big name in redistricting circles who was once called the “Picasso of Gerrymandering,” whose car has the license plate GMANDR, who was the focus of a Daily Show piece about redistricting—didn’t go unremarked upon by Alaska Redistricting Board Counsel Matt Singer. Brace was also behind the Illinois 4th district, known as the Chicago “earmuffs” district, that was featured prominently in the Washington Post’s recent project examining redistricting through the lens of mini golf:
Brace stood by his work, noting that the earmuffs district was drawn at the direction of the Illinois Supreme Court in order to preserve a district that could be driven by Latino and Hispanic voters. “It’s not pretty but I’m proud of it,” he said.
While Singer was focused more on the salacious, Tanner Amdur-Clark, who is representing the group formed around Doyon, Limited in defense of the current plan, had more substantive questioning for Brace that stretched from Tuesday into this morning. Here, we got a good look at precisely why the Doyon group is intervening against the Valdez case. Amdur-Clark’s questioning revealed that Brace has very little understanding of the complexities of Alaska Native communities that would be affected by his new maps. The Valdez maps would break many well-established cultural boundaries and force together communities that don’t share traditions, language or food.
“Is it your opinion that Alaska Natives are a single monolithic group?” Amdur-Clark asked.
Brace said no, but that he was largely relying on the data from the U.S. Census Bureau that, as of now, doesn’t offer any granularity on Alaska Native populations. In fact, much of Brace’s testimony and arguments seemed to rest on the technicalities of how the U.S. Census Bureau operates. He noted that Alaska has had opportunities to challenge how the census blocks are shaped but has been largely passive, leaving the issues to the automatically generated blocks that feed into the problems now. He also had plenty of criticism aimed at the Alaska Redistricting Board, which he said was slow to get started and took little time to explore alternatives or fully consider testimony from around the state.
Those points were disputed when Alaska Redistricting Board member Nicole Borromeo took the stand. She argued that the board had been active in its redistricting efforts and that it was Valdez that was slow to join the party. She argued that redistricting is a tricky balancing act and plans must be considered for how they impact the rest of the state. While she said she was aware of the concerns raised by Valdez, she didn’t believe they overrode the concerns raised by the Interior villages. When asked, she said she believed that the Mat-Su and Valdez were more socio-economically integrated than Valdez’s proposed pairing of Arctic Village and Cordova.
“We never as a board expected to make the entire state happy but you can’t let perfection be the enemy of good and we have a good, fair, strong House map,” she said.
(Sidenote: Her specific use of the term “House map” isn’t accidental. She’s been a strong supporter of the House districts but raised grave concerns about the Anchorage-area Senate pairings approved by the board’s conservatives.)
In an interesting turn in the trial, Brena confronted Borromeo about her texts with Amdur-Clark and another former employee of the Tanana Chiefs Association where she was looking for input on the maps and, at times, complaining about the conservatives on the board. Brena asked if she was showing favoritism in the exchanges. Borromeo denied the claim, countering that if Valdez had reached out directly, then perhaps they could have avoided dragging this into the court.
The rest of the day’s testimony came from the Doyon group’s witnesses, which served to reinforce the complex differences between Alaska Native communities in the Interior and those on the coast. That included testimony from anthropologist Miranda Wright, who is from Nulato, about the connections of the Interior region communities. She talked at length about the shared languages, traditions, culture, food, subsistence activities and intermarriages between those communities. She was adamant that despite some of the communities’ relative as-the-raven-flies proximity to coastal communities like Unalakleet they shared very little in common. She said one of the biggest differences was the coastal communities’ reliance on marine mammals.
“Is it fair to say walruses don’t make their way into McGrath?” asked board counsel Lee Baxter.
She laughed and said it was a fair assumption.
Why it matters: The difficulty in finding a home for Valdez isn’t new. Today, the court also heard from Vicki Otte. Otte is the former CEO of MTNT, an ANC that covers McGrath, Takotna, Nikolai and Telida, who also served as the chair of the Alaska Redistricting Board during the 2000 round. Singer noted that’s where the court called the decision on where to place Valdez the “single most-difficult decision” facing the board. That round moved it from Prince Williams Sound to the Richardson district.
This case encapsulates the difficulties in redistricting. Satisfying the requests of Valdez would necessarily require changes elsewhere that would upset other parties. At the core, though, is the question of how to weigh the relative socio-economic integration of one map against another proposal. There’s no doubt that Valdez is better integrated with the Richardson corridor or the Prince Williams Sound district, but does that override the integration of Alaska Native communities? While it’s not an answer for today’s trial, I believe these kinds of problems make the case that Alaska really ought to have more House districts in order to better reflect the complex difference between the communities.
The board takes the stand, Jan. 27, 2022
The members of the Alaska Redistricting Board took the stand this afternoon in defense of the House maps that pair together Valdez with the Mat-Su Borough, an issue that has dominated almost the entirety of this week’s trial time. They faced questions about the socio-economic integration of various communities, their decision-making process and potential outside influences on the maps. While the board has been bitterly divided when it comes to the Senate pairings, they were united in defense of the final House maps with each member today offering some varying degree of board member Melanie Bahnke’s assessment of the plan:
“That is the fairest map that I think has ever been produced,” she said. “Maybe I’m biased, but I think that the board did a wonderful job when it came to the House map.”
The members talked about balancing interests between communities, focusing on the fact that the Alaska Constitution calls for districts to be relatively socio-economically integrated. It’s a key point that produced plenty of eye-test-like comparisons: Is Holy Cross more socio-economically integrated with Russian Mission or is Holy Cross more socio-economically integrated with Glenallen? The board almost universally sided with comparisons that supported the final maps.
Beneath it all is a question of just how much weight the redistricting process should give to the complex differences between Alaska Native communities and how those differences should be weighed against the interests of communities like Valdez.
In breaking from the past actions, this board clearly sought to respect the cultural boundaries of Alaska Native communities as laid out by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the corporation regions established under that legislation. One of the most important elements of the map is the firm boundary separating Interior Athabascan communities from Bering Strait and North Slope communities. Those Interior Athabascan communities would go from being spread out across four different House districts to united under a single district, grouping communities in the Doyon, Limited region with those in the Ahtna, Inc., region.
Of course, starting with firm boundaries on the western side of the massive House District 36—which is the largest state house district in the United States—creates a cascade of decisions that resulted in the current “orphaned” status of Valdez. The unification of the Interior Athabascan communities along with the roughly 4,000 Fairbanks North Star Borough residents that didn’t fit within the municipality’s boundaries mean there isn’t room for the nearly 4,000 Valdez residents. That’s the root of the claims raised by Valdez, which argues that it was essentially left out in the cold by decisions made earlier in the process.
But adding Valdez to its preferred district, House District 36, would necessarily cause a jostling back in the other direction, breaking up the hard-fought boundaries drawn to respect cultures that long predate the state of Alaska. Whether that carries any weight in defense of the plan is unclear. The process is, unsurprisingly, tilted in favor of municipal boundaries over boundaries determined by ANCSA. Precedent calls for municipalities to be maintained as best as possible and there’s no clear considerations given to Alaska Native groups.
Bahnke argued that consideration should be given to those cultural boundaries.
“I understand and appreciate Valdez’s concerns, but we had to balance—it’s just like being a mother of children with different competing wants and needs, what’s best for the whole family—and I mapped based on what I felt was best for the whole state.”
Even Bethany Marcum, who had voted against the adoption of the House maps over the positioning of Valdez, told the court that she stood by the board’s decisions. Her vote was to register Valdez’s concerns on the record, she said, coming after a flurry of last-minute mapping efforts trying to accommodate the city. She said she had considered many alternatives, including potentially pairing Valdez with one of the Anchorage districts but said she couldn’t find anything workable. She supported her colleague’s arguments that the Valdez was relatively socio-economically integrated with the Mat-Su Borough, citing their shared reliance on the oil industry.
“We recognize this is not the preferred solution but it’s a legal and constitutional solution for the entire state,” she said. “I wanted it to be clear I tried my best.”
Judge Thomas Matthews has been mostly silent throughout the questioning, only weighing in on objections and other procedural manners, but today he did weigh in with a question for Chair John Binkley. If Valdez has been a persistent challenge for the Alaska Redistricting Board in previous rounds as has been documented in past rulings, he asked, then why not start the process with Valdez?
“I don’t really think we saw it that way, your honor,” Binkley responded. “As we were putting our various maps together, we were continually working with where Valdez was going to go at each of those different scenarios. I don’t really think it was held to last. I think we recognized early on the difficulties. The state’s demographer pointed that out to us early. … We really didn’t save it until last, we were aware of it and did the best we could.”
Valdez charges that Binkley’s desire to keep the entirety of the Fairbanks North Star Borough together in five House districts, a move that would have required significantly overpopulating each district, painted the Alaska Redistricting Board into a corner when it came to Valdez.
The other key battle of the day was over an erroneous document detailing the population and deviations of each House district. This was a significant line of questioning with Alaska Redistricting Board executive director Peter Torkelson. The board produced a document that contained the final populations of each House district and their deviation from the ideal of 18,355 residents but failed to update it once House district numbers were updated to reflect the final Senate pairings. This resulted in the population and deviations of 27 House districts to be reported incorrectly during the window for challenges against the plans to be filed.
The board, in redirect, argued that the error had no material impact on the process, noting that no one called with questions about the population deviation (as Calista Corporation counsel Mike Schechter interjected, that’s because no one knew they were wrong) and that sophisticated mapping groups would have been able to look at the source maps to be able to determine the population and deviations.
None of the plaintiffs seemed to see it as a harmless matter. They pointed out that not only were they wrong for the bulk of the time, but that the document was corrected without properly notifying the changes to the public, the plaintiffs or even the court. There was also no other single document that collected the information. It’s not entirely clear what precise impact this will have in the course of the litigation, but the plaintiffs argued today that it is evidence that there were process problems with the board and that the board has not been honest with the court and the plaintiffs.
A notable quotable
Board member Budd Simpson on the early iterations of the board maps that would have seen Reps. Andi Story and Dan Ortiz narrowly redistricted out of their current districts:
“In the mapping process, we had a literally just made a couple of errors that honestly looked really bad.”
A big unknown
The pace of the redistricting trial has been a problem from the get-go, forcing the groups to develop their cases without a full record of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s work and communications. Discovery has been an ongoing process throughout the trial and was only mostly resolved once the trial had begun with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that granted Judge Matthews an opportunity to review the documents the board had sought to kept secret under attorney-client privilege. Plaintiffs had reserved the right to expand and update their cases based on that privilege, which is just what has happened with the East Anchorage plaintiffs.
I don’t have a good view of precisely what the group’s new arguments are, but the gist is that they’re attempting to expand their lawsuit to include racial complaints over the board’s decision to pair the mostly white, mostly conservative Eagle River House district together with the diverse, swingy South Muldoon House district into one Senate district. Based on the ongoing discovery efforts, it appears the East Anchorage plaintiffs believe they’ve found a smoking gun that the board knowingly overlooked the racial problems created by the pairing, again with some erroneous documents. It’s important to note that both the East Anchorage plaintiffs and the Mat-Su plaintiffs had originally filed complaints that included allegations the board had violated the federal Voting Rights Act, but both dropped the complaints after the Redistricting Board threatened to boot the cases to the federal court, a proposition that would have slowed the litigation considerably.
Judge Matthews has yet to issue a ruling on whether the plaintiffs can expand their complaint and said he’s not sure he’ll have a decision before the close of Friday. It’s hard to say how he might rule on it, but he’s generally leaned in the direction of creating a complete and inclusive record of the complaints. Still, Alaska Redistricting Board counsel Matt Singer has been particularly pugnacious when it comes to accommodating the plaintiffs’ fluid complaints and filings. He’s lost at most turns, but that’s no guarantee about how things continue forward.
A breather on redistricting, Jan. 28, 2022
Today’s trial served as rebuttal testimony for the Valdez and Mat-Su plaintiffs. It was largely an exercise in reinforcing the arguments that we’ve heard throughout the week and there wasn’t a heckuva lot new to report at this point. There were several times today where even Judge Thomas Matthews said something to the effect of “I get the point” as the sides were quibbling over a question that had been asked and answered many times before by many different witnesses. With today marking a wrap on the witness portion of the challenges brought by the Mat-Su Borough and the city of Valdez, I wanted to take a moment to take stock in where things stand.
At the heart of the challenge is that the Mat-Su Borough doesn’t like the city of Valdez and the city of Valdez doesn’t like the Mat-Su Borough, and they both challenge the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decision to pair them together into House District 29, which is about 70% Mat-Su Borough. They’re both seeking a court-ordered breakup that would have big ramifications for the rest of the state, with a realignment that would likely see House District 36—which unites Interior Athabascan communities—completely redrawn. That’s why a group centered around Doyon, Limited has intervened in defense of the current maps.