Alaska Redistricting Board disputes claims of partisanship in draft political maps

There will be extensive hearings across Alaska before a November deadline
The redistricting process takes place every 10 years with the release of U.S. Census Bureau data.
The redistricting process takes place every 10 years with the release of U.S. Census Bureau data.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 6:36 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Redistricting Board has pushed back at claims of partisanship in how its draft political maps have been drawn.

Members of the public testified about the maps, claiming there is evidence of gerrymandering against members of the largely Democratic House of Representatives majority caucus.

Under two separate draft maps, Democratic Reps. Matt Claman, Harriet Drummond and Zack Fields would all be in the same House district and need to run against each other at next year’s election.

Democratic Reps. Ivy Spohnholz and Liz Snyder would also be placed in the same district.

In Juneau, a draft map has a narrow finger jutting out that encompasses where Democratic Rep Andi Story lives. Story and fellow Democratic Rep. Sara Hannan would be running for the same seat.

One draft plan would have had Anchorage Republican Reps. Laddie Shaw and James Kaufman in the same district, but it has been slated to be withdrawn.

Nicole Borromeo, a board member, said it was not intentional to pack Democrats in the same districts and that where legislators live was not a consideration for how maps were drawn.

“We don’t have some special map here that lists all 60 state legislators,” she said.

John Binkley, the board’s chair, agreed with Borromeo.

Robin Smith, who testified in the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, said the pairing of Democrats in the same districts may not have been intentional but it was odd, particularly as the same thing hadn’t happened to Republicans.

“I just want you to be aware of how it looks to the average person out here,” Smith added.

Borromeo thanked Smith for bringing the issue to the board’s intention and said that “perception can become reality.” She reiterated that packing Democrats was not intentional.

Multiple testifiers said they were aware of the difficult job facing board members. The Alaska Constitution requires districts be compact and contiguous and a “relatively integrated socio-economic area” while staying as close as possible to the population requirements for 40 House districts.

The board also faces the challenge of shifting demographics. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s population increased substantially over the past 10 years while populations decreased in Anchorage and Fairbanks over the same period.

Should Anchorage House districts spill into the Mat-Su to even out population changes? Or should borough boundaries not be breached in that way?

The board will need to make a final political map decision before a Nov. 10 deadline. Legal challenges in Alaska redistricting cycles are common, as are accusations of partisanship.

Members heard alternative map proposals on Friday, including from a Republican-backed redistricting group, the Alaska Democratic Party, a coalition of Alaska Native corporations and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly.

There were proposals to keep Ahtna communities in the same district and calls to redraw Southeast Alaska districts. That region has been particularly complicated for members with shifting demographics, leading to one proposed district that stretches from south of Ketchikan up to Yakutat.

The board heard public testimony criticizing the preliminary map for Fairbanks with a north to south orientation as not representing how the community sees itself.

Former Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg was particularly suspicious of a proposed district in the center of Fairbanks, saying there is no commonality between the communities within it. He claimed that was evidence of gerrymandering.

“In order to get from one side of the district — the west side of the district to the east side — you have to drive through three other districts,” he said. “Clearly, there’s a problem here.”

Binkley said Alaska’s redistricting process is different to the majority of states where maps are drawn by state legislatures.

“We try to be apolitical in this process,” he said.

The governor appoints two members to the board, the Senate president and House speaker appoint one member each and the chief justice of Alaska Supreme Court appoints the final member. The five-member board is made up of three Republicans.

Alaska’s draft Senate maps have not been presented yet. Those were expected to be announced at Monday’s meeting before extensive public hearings take place across Alaska.

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