Court hears latest challenge over Alaska Redistricting that accuses board’s conservatives of repeating gerrymander

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The fate of Alaska’s redistricting plan was back in court today for oral arguments on the last big challenge to the work of the Alaska Redistricting Board, arguing over whether the board’s plan to pair Eagle River with South Anchorage is essentially the continuation of the same partisan gerrymander the courts identified and sent them back to correct. The Alaska Redistricting Board argues everything’s fine because the board discussed its decisions in public this time around while the Girdwood plaintiffs, who brought the case, argue that the rotten intent of the board’s conservatives to enshrine a Republican advantage in the Anchorage state Senate maps is still the same.

This case shares many similar components to the case successfully argued by the East Anchorage plaintiffs, arguing that Eagle River’s deeply conservative voters would overwhelm the voters in South Anchorage and strip them of effective representation in the Legislature. While the board argues there’s no similar problem here because South Anchorage has reliably elected Republican state legislators, the Girdwood plaintiffs point out that it went to Biden and Galvin in the most recent election (and the district also nearly elected an independent for the state House).

There’s also accusations that the board ignored clear public input and relied on, at best, stretches of the imagination when justifying the connection between Eagle River and South Anchorage in one Senate district as well as the Eagle River and JBER/Government Hill connection in the other Senate district. Gardner went to length to argue that the connections that made the Eagle River and JBER state Senate district sacrosanct—shared high schools and military connections—were either flat wrong (JBER students don’t actually go to school in that Eagle River district) a stretch supported by insufficient evidence.

But the key issue here is whether the board’s conservative majority maintained some sort of illegitimate purpose in its drawing of the Senate maps. It’s important because the Alaska Redistricting Board does ultimately have near to free rein to decide the layout of the maps—unless you explicitly say your proposed maps will give Eagle River a shot at “more representation”—and it’s why we got a good look behind the scenes as was detailed in the preview story. The Girdwood plaintiffs are working hard here to establish that the board was still dead set on giving Eagle River and the Republican party at large an advantage with the new maps.

“The new question for the court to answer is does remand cure a gerrymander?” asked Eva Gardner, the attorney for the Girdwood plaintiffs. “Could a board launder its illegitimate business through the courts? The answer has to be no.”

While the board’s conservatives were more careful with what they said this time around, there is still a clear record that the reason the board’s majority fought hard to keep JBER and Eagle River paired together was in order to protect against creating a Democratic advantage. This was outlined by board member Budd Simpson in an email sent to an untold number of people as well as on the record during the board’s work where he argued against an Eagle River/Eagle River district that would by necessity place the JBER district with an adjacent Democratic-leaning Anchorage district. This is a point that even Matt Singer, the attorney for the Alaska Redistricting Board, said was “reasonable” during arguments today. Singer argued that it was really the Girdwood plaintiffs that were trying to gerrymander through the courts.

But has already been argued in the original case, isn’t an advantage for one group is necessarily the disadvantage of another? By specifically guarding against a Democrat-favoring Senate district, isn’t the board necessarily working to maintain a Republican advantage?

The Girdwood plaintiffs say that’s the case, arguing that politics was clearly guiding the decision-making process of the board and turning all the public testimony and public hearings into little more than a show in order to clean up the process while maintaining the intent.

“We are saying the board paid lip service to public testimony,” Gardner said. “It went through this process as a show to cover up a repeat of what they did before. It goes to their credibility and good faith.”

While it’s always a risky endeavor to read into a judge’s questioning, Judge Thomas Matthews did get right to the point in a question with board counsel Singer when he asked whether the board has truly corrected the error both he and the Alaska Supreme Court identified.

“Given the Supreme Court’s affirming essentially that what was done before was an unconstitutional gerrymander in order to benefit Eagle River,” he said. “We’ve still got a map which benefits Eagle River, don’t we? So, isn’t this simply the same result in a different package?”

“There’s nothing that gives an advantage to Eagle River,” Singer claimed. He went onto argue that the result of the maps could be that Eagle River ends up with no senators of their own, suggesting that the Eagle River/JBER district could elect someone from Government Hill and the Eagle River/South Anchorage district could elect someone from Girdwood.

It’s not too far off the spurious claim from Singer and the Alaska Redistricting Board’s conservatives that the original map, which split pieces of East Anchorage between three different Senate districts gave them the most representation out of anyone. Judge Matthews didn’t buy that argument then, calling it out as a time-honored gerrymandering tactic of cracking.

Still, it gets back to the fundamental question of what exactly did Judge Matthews and the Alaska Supreme Court mean when they identified the partisan gerrymander and sent it back to the board to fix? Singer and the Alaska Redistricting Board argue that it was only about addressing the political disadvantage wrought on the East Anchorage community that needed to be fixed and there was no direction to consolidate Eagle River’s two state House districts into a single state Senate district. Both the Girdwood plaintiffs and the East Anchorage plaintiffs argue the action required was more expansive because, after all, it wasn’t just about who was on the losing end but who was getting the advantage.

Judge Matthews has a Monday deadline for a decision on this case. He still hasn’t ruled on the appeal out of the East Anchorage plaintiffs, which argues too that the board should have addressed the advantage to Eagle River, and said he plans to rule on that decision at the same time next week.

Stay tuned!

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