Alaska Redistricting Board heads back to the drawing board to fix political gerrymander

Members of the Alaska Redistricting Board meet on April 4, 2022.

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The Alaska Redistricting Board is off to a contentious start after the Alaska Supreme Court sent its members back to the drawing table to fix the political gerrymander in East Anchorage by the board’s conservative majority and to fix the constitutional issues around the so-called Cantwell Carveout (more on that after the maps section).

The big issue is how the Anchorage-area maps will shake out as a result of the division of East Anchorage’s South Muldoon district from the Eagle River district. Public testimony has, so far, widely favored a plan proposed by Board member Melanie Bahnke (maps below) that some of the conservatives had conceded was a fair and legal map during the original mapping process. The conservatives now argue their support of the Bahnke map no longer applies and there should be a lengthy regime of public testimony and outreach to collect alternative Senate pairings. While the lack of public testimony during the original plan was noted by the courts, the concern has now turned to how much public testimony is actually needed and whether the board’s conservatives are really just stalling for time to come up with another conservative-friendly plan.

“I’m not willing to get real creative,” said Bahnke during discussions about when they’d reach a final vote on the Senate pairings. “I’m not sure what you guys are trying to accomplish.”

The conservatives, helmed by Board Chair John Binkley dismissed the public testimony on Saturday as an incomplete snapshot of public sentiments on the Anchorage-area pairings, suggesting that people have been distracted by the Anchorage municipal elections, Don Young’s passing and the pending special election to fill the vacant seat. He suggested that the board could deliberate all the way through to the April 15 deadline set by Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews, noting that the ruling technically only requires a status update and not a final plan. Board member Bethany Marcum, the conservative who came up with the East Anchorage pairings and whose words that it would give Eagle River the opportunity for “more representation” likely sunk the plan, said she had her own Senate pairings in mind but refused to disclose them publicly, saying she wanted to hear the public’s input first (and also bar the public the opportunity from sounding off on her plan, if we’re being clear). She said she’s also been contacted by many people thinking of their own versions of the plan.

While Marcum refused to put a plan on the record, former Alaska Republican Party chair Randy Ruedrich had a conservative-favoring plan to show the board. His suggestion would, critically, still divide Eagle River’s two Senate districts. It would maintain the existing connection of the Eagle River/Chugiak district with the JBER district while reaching over the mountains to connect Eagle River’s other district with the South Anchorage/Girdwood district. He cited local road service areas and avalanches as a common connection. Anchorage Assemblymember Jamie Allard, who had testified against any division of Eagle River during Anchorage’s municipal reapportionment hearings, testified in support of the plan.

(Maps and explanation of some key differences below.)

Board Member Budd Simpson, the conservative from Juneau who was called out by Judge Thomas in particular for ignoring public testimony in the Juneau/Skagway map, seemed to split the difference. Simpson said the court is obviously looking for some demonstration of enhanced public input, but added that he had no interest in stringing things out and favored setting a swifter schedule. Counsel Singer said that they should follow the process laid out by the constitution, where they’d adopt an initial plan (in this case, the Bahnke plan) as a draft, then take public testimony, revise the plan, put it out for another round of public testimony and then adopt it.

After plenty of back and forth, the board unanimously adopted Bahnke’s plan as a proposal (the conservatives noting their intent to adopt something else) and approved a hard deadline of Wednesday for the board to solicit new ideas on the Anchorage Senate pairings and to hear from the public on preferences. What happens after that isn’t at all clear. Borromeo and Bahnke pushed for a new hearing to be held on Thursday, but Binkley indicated he would like some additional time.

Borromeo and Bahnke signaled that hey plan to continue to fight for swift resolution on the map.

“I’m happy to make a final decision today,” Borromeo said, “but it sounds we’re gonna drag this out.”

If you were hoping for a swift resolution to the plan given the looming June 1 candidate filing deadline, you’re going to be disappointed.

What’s next: The board has scheduled a public testimony session on Tuesday at 10 a.m. as well as public testimony and discussion for Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Be heard: In addition to the above meetings, the board’s also taking written testimony here as well as submitted map suggestions.

Follow the thread: Alaska Redistricting Board hears public testimony on Saturday, talks process on Monday

The Anchorage maps

The key thing to know about the Bahnke plan is that it’s completely different than what the board adopted. While there’s been a lot of support for the plan, which was pitched all the way back in December, the significant differences could be an issue. At least that’s the argument made by board counsel Matt Singer, who’s noted that the court rulings only ruled out the East Anchorage/Eagle River pairing and doesn’t automatically require alterations to the other districts. The point, though, is that both this map and the map drawn by Marcum is that they all flow from the decision about what you do with Eagle River. If you keep the deeply conservative region together, then maps can’t look radically different from Bahnke’s plan.

That whole point was well made by the proposal put forward by Randy Ruedrich. Ruedrich, which pushing for another over-the-mountains pairing. It answers the question of what to do with Eagle River by still splitting it, pairing the newly freed Eagle River district with the South Anchorage/Girdwood house district. Ruedrich is obviously already appealing to Singer’s groundwork with a plan that maintains three of the existing Senate pairings (Yellow-F, Blue-H, Orange-L in the below map). Whether it’s legal, however, could be a question. As another testifier pointed out, it’s still gifting the conservative Eagle River the driver’s seat of two Senate districts, a perk not afforded to any other similarly sized area. Whether Girdwood/South Anchorage, a solidly Republican district, is OK with it is another question and potentially a subject of another lawsuit. Also, As far as incumbents go, this Senate pairing would put Democratic Sens. Tom Begich and Elvi Gray-Jackson together.

The proposals put forward by Randy Ruedrich, the former Republican party chairman.

Cantwell Carveout shenanigans nixed

The purple line around the appendage covers the Cantwell Carveout that the court is ordering removed. The population is small enough that returning to the previous boundaries in red can be done without changes elsewhere.

Oh, the Cantwell Carveout. This resolution is a simple-enough one—the Alaska Supreme Court even said as much, noting that it could be eliminated without any necessary changes elsewhere in the map—but as with all things in the board, nothing is quite that simple. Borromeo has already put together a proposal that resolves the issues by simply reverting to the map they had before they made the last-minute decision to move the community of Cantwell out of the Denali Borough and into the rural Interior house district based on the connection between Ahtna, Inc., shareholders. Marcum said she wanted time to propose her own alternative (but like with the Senate pairings, was not ready to let the public see).

Meanwhile, Board chair John Binkley revealed he has not read or does not understand the Supreme Court’s ruling in any detail when he wondered if there was any way to maintain some form of the carveout. He complained that the Supreme Court ignored the public testimony and wondered if the board could still find a way to make it work, seemingly missing that the decision was based not on the socioeconomic connections or public testimony but the plain fact that it undermined the compactness of the districts and broke the Denali Borough’s boundaries more than needed.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, pretty much everyone was clear that such shenanigans were totally unacceptable. Members Borromeo, Simpson and Bahnke and counsel Singer said the Supreme Court was clear. “There’s not much room for creativity,” Singer said. “I just don’t see any other solution that in my guess would be palatable to the court.”

“That answers my question on that,” Binkley eventually conceded.

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