Girdwood residents sue Alaska Redistricting Board over maps putting them with Eagle River

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On the eve of the Alaska Redistricting Board’s date back in court over accusations that its conservative majority essentially repeated the same gerrymander to boost Republican representation in the state Senate that invalidated the original plan, a new group of plaintiffs has come to the table.

Three Girdwood residents—Louis Theiss, Ken Waugh and Jennifer Wingard—today filed a new lawsuit challenging the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decision to create a Senate district from the state House district that contains Girdwood, South Anchorage and Whittier (9-E) and one of the deeply conservative Eagle River’s two state House seats that was directly involved in the last round of litigation (now 10-E).

“They are seeking to intervene in the suit to assert a constitutional challenge to the new Anchorage Senate pairings,” explained the Girdwood Plaintiffs’ attorney Eva Gardner in an email with me, “which put Girdwood in a district with Eagle River—a pairing that makes no sense and will deprive Girdwood, and others within its district, of a meaningful vote.”

The Alaska Supreme Court and Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews struck down the Alaska Redistricting Board’s decision to create a Senate district from house districts in East Anchorage and Eagle River earlier this year, finding it constituted a political gerrymander aimed at boosting the conservative Eagle River’s representation at the expense of the swingier East Anchorage district. Sent back to the drawing board, the Alaska Redistricting Board’s conservatives opted to create the new Eagle River/South Anchorage state Senate seat rather than a unified Eagle River senate seat. Though supporters cited several superficial connections between Eagle River and South Anchorage, the board zeroed in on the apparent military connection between the other Eagle River House district (24-L) with the JBER/Downtown district (23-L) as justification for sticking with the split Eagle River.

Critics, including independent board members Nicole Borromeo and Melanie Bahnke, argued the new plan repeated the same ploy of putting conservative Eagle River voters at the wheel of two Senate districts at the expense of others. They pointed out that the military is not a defined community of interest while the court rulings had clearly found that Eagle River was its own community of interest.

“I believe that the court sent this back to us to correct it,” Bahnke said during the hearings, “not to find a new way to continue to try to give Eagle River more representation.”

The East Anchorage plaintiffs are challenging the new maps, but it’s clear that they’re running out of steam and money to continue this lawsuit. In one of the filings leading up to tomorrow’s oral arguments—which are scheduled for 3 p.m. and will be streamed here—the group wrote it doesn’t plan on pursuing the case much longer: “East Anchorage plaintiffs have not, nor do they intend to, file a new challenge or trigger a renewed Civil Rule 90.8 application process, nor do East Anchorage plaintiffs have the financial ability to fund such an effort.”

The entry of residents from Girdwood is a big deal not just because it’s picking up the torch from East Anchorage in the event East Anchorage’s road ends tomorrow, but because the Alaska Redistricting Board’s attorney Matt Singer’s main argument against the East Anchorage plaintiffs’ appeal is that they shouldn’t be allowed to sue over a pairing that doesn’t directly involve them. The Girdwood Plaintiffs are, of course, in the proposed district and their filing argues they’ll be irreparably harmed if this year’s elections are held under the current maps.

“The Girdwood Plaintiffs will be irreparably harmed if the 2022 proclamation remains in place,” the motion, which would allow them to intervene in the appeal raised by East Anchorage, explains. “They reside in House District 9 and are entitled to fair and effective representation in the Alaska Senate for the next decade, including this year’s legislative elections.”

The group’s arguments largely mirror those made in successful challenge from the East Anchorage plaintiffs: That the board is working to boost Eagle River’s conservatives at the expense of others. Instead of it being the swingy South Muldoon district it’s now the leans-conservative South Anchorage district (which came close to electing an independent in the 2020 elections).

Key filings: Motion to intervene, complaint

What’s next

The path ahead is not entirely clear at this moment. The East Anchorage plaintiffs are set to have their oral arguments in front of Judge Matthews on Tuesday afternoon, but it could go a number of different directions. Judge Matthews could agree that the board’s actions are a repeat and need to be sent back with another set of instructions (or, as board member Borromeo has requested, just have the court decide it). He could find the Alaska Redistricting Board’s arguments that East Anchorage has no ground to sue are convincing, which would make for a short hearing. The Girdwood Plaintiffs are hoping that they can intervene with East Anchorage’s case, essentially piggybacking into the case with the goal of a faster resolution. If they’re barred from intervening, they’d likely be stuck starting from square one on a timeline that wouldn’t guarantee changes before the June 1 filing deadline for candidates.

Delay is the key objective for the Alaska Redistricting Board, which not only means we might get a repeat of the last redistricting process where we had one map for ‘12 and another for ‘14, but as we have seen with the East Anchorage plaintiffs there’s also a practical limit on how far and how long someone can pursue litigation.

It’s worth noting that the Girdwood Plaintiffs’ legal team is not coming to this cold. Attorneys Eva Gardner and Mike Schechter were involved with the Calista, Corporation challenges to the redistricting plan. Those challenges have already been resolved and they are currently only working with the Girdwood Plaintiffs.

I’ll be covering the oral arguments in the East Anchorage tomorrow on Twitter.


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