Sunday, May 29, 2011

Boundary Setting And Terminology Around Minority Districts

[The doings of the Redistricting Board are not impossibly complicated, but there are lots of details that make it hard to grasp.  I wouldn't claim to grasp more than a small portion.  But in this post I've attempted to explain some of what is going on.  At the end I've posted some communications made to the Board as they got close to approving a map of the Native districts.  They should make a little more sense after you read the first part of the post.  I didn't go to the Saturday meeting and have heard they did approve a Native plan.  If they did, I can't find anything about it on the Board's website.  It would be nice, but I do sympathize with the staff and all the demands on them.]

Friday at the Redistricting Board Meeting, there was more pushing and shoving of pixels here and there in attempts to get nine Native districts that would meet jello-like criteria for standards whose names have also morphed since March.  There was one plan that Board members PeggyAnn McConnochie and Marie Greene worked on.  Another was created by Executive Director Taylor Bickford.

We began in March with the terms 'Majority-minority' and 'Influence' districts.  Majority-minority means districts that have a majority of Native voters in the belief that this would insure that Native Alaskan voters would be able to elect the candidate of their choice in those districts. 

Influence districts were ones that had enough Native Alaskan population that they would likely be able, with enough non-Native cross-over vote, elect candidates of their choice.

At the beginning of this process, based on the 2001 redistricting process, Majority-minority districts had to have 50% or more Native Alaskans.  Influence districts needed 35%.

Well, that wasn't all.  There's Total Native Population and Native Voting Age Population.  Somewhere during the process it was clarified - I think - that the key number was going to be Voting Age Population, known affectionately as VAP.

Think you've got it now?  Well, there's more.  Which Natives on the Census tabulation do we count?  People who just identified themselves as "Native?"

No.  (Actually, I'm not sure what exact label the census forms had, but at the Board they use "Native.")  But there are also options to mark off more than one ethnicity - recognizing mixed ethnicities.  So, there was talk for a while of just counting "Native plus White."  Then the term "Native plus One" meaning someone who chose Native plus one other option.  And then there are those who chose Native plus more than one other ethnicity.

So the private plans that came in, lacking specific guidance, used different terminology and different configurations of what made up a Native.

Then the Board had a phone discussion with Voting Rights Act consultant Lisa Handley after she'd analyzed the data from Alaska.  New guidelines emerged.  Majority-minority was out.  Effective was in.  She said that - and a lot of how the Department of Justice thinks about these things comes from Southern states where the minority population is mainly African-American - a minority could have a majority in a district, but depending on socio-economic conditions, that majority wouldn't be enough to 'effectively' chose the candidate of their choice.  So now the key word was Effective Districts.  And she said a better name for influence district is now Equal Opportunity District

And, here comes the kicker, you don't have to have 50% minority in a district to be an Effective District.  Well, what percent do you need?  Hah!  You don't think she's just going to give a number.  Of course not.  "It depends."

It depends on the results of the voting analysis she's done.  Was there block voting?  Did Natives tend to vote in a block for a particular candidate?  Did the non-Natives vote in a block?  Did the blocks vote for the same or different candidates.  If the whites in the district voted for the same candidate that the Natives voted for, then we have Cross-Over voting.  This is good if you're trying to set an acceptable Effective District because you need a lower percentage of Natives because the Native voters get significant help from the non-Native voters.  But if they vote in blocks for different candidates, then you have polarization.  This is bad for the board members because they need a higher percentage of Natives for a district to be Effective or Influence. (Though VRA consultant Handley was pushing Equal Opportunity over Influence, the board has tended to keep using Influence, though they've dropped Majority-minority and moved to Effective.)

Some districts have higher cross-over voting and they need a lower percentage of Natives.  The old District 37 - Aleutians - fit in this category.  The old District 6 - the huge district that loops from the Canadian border over Fairbanks down the Yukon - on the other hand, is polarized, so it needs a higher percentage.

There are more factors.  One is total population in a district.  No district can exceed a 10% deviation in total population from any other district.  That is, the largest district cannot be more than 10% larger than the smallest population.  And that is pushing the what is likely to be accepted under the one person, one vote rule.  And in the urban areas, staying closer to a 1% deviation is more acceptable.  The ideal district is 17,755 people. (The new total population figure divided by 40 House seats.)

As the board tries to make these nine Native districts [the same number of Native districts under the old plan - any less would be 'Retrogression' which is not allowed under the Voting Rights Act] not only do they need enough Native voters to qualify as 'equal-opportunity' or 'Effective' districts, those districts also need enough total voters to be within about 5% of 17,755 people.

But the Native areas of the state don't have quite enough people to get all nine districts up to an acceptable level.  So they need to get people from more populated areas.

So, the image above shows some screen shots of the computer maps changing rapidly as a board member or staffer moves census blocs in and out of districts trying to increase Native population, trying to get the total population high or low enough to stay within a few percent of the ideal 17,755 people per district, while determining if the White population they are moving in to give a Native district enough people are cross-over Whites or polarized Whites.  And Fairbanks has enough people for five whole districts with 8000 'excess' population that can be 'given' to districts needing people. 

And those pink, periwinkle, and green pieces of different districts on the edges of Fairbanks are just a tiny part of the whole picture.    The first Fairbanks maps drawn up by member Jim Holm had lopped off the northwest Fairbanks suburbs of Greenbelt and Ester - known as liberal bastions.  It turned out this put Democratic Rep. David Gutenberg into huge Native influence (now called equal opportunity) district and the old representative of that district (new Republican, Alan Dick) had been mapped out.  That map was being altered Friday.

Friday's justification for people putting the Democratic enclaves into the rural district was, "Since Natives vote Democratic, putting urban Democratic voters into the district would mean these are cross-over voters and thus would lower the percentage of Natives needed to make it an Effective district."

On the other hand, they justified taking a couple thousand mostly White, not Democratic, voters from Eilson on the grounds that only 20% of them vote.   So while they are probably not voting Democratic - and thus would be a 'polarized bloc' - since most don't vote, this too could be used to justify a lower needed Native percentage.  (What happens if Republicans do a serious 'get-out-the-vote' campaign at Eilson?)

Those little pieces on the edge of Fairbanks are just one tiny part of Alaska and the job of the Board.  The maps in the image up above fit inside the red circle on this map that Board executive director Taylor Bickford presented on Friday.

And this is just a big chunk of central Alaska.  I'm writing all this with the maps to give you a sense of what was happening the last several days at the board.  Moving different colored pixels trying to get Native VAP and Deviation percentages lined up among six House districts and three Senate districts, while keeping them in some sense of defensible socio-economic coherence.

I didn't go to the meeting on Saturday.  I just couldn't will myself to do it.  The board's website offers an agenda and an Executive Director's report for Saturday's meeting, but unfortunately, the links both take me here:

Hey, I make plenty of errors on my blog and the short-handed staff is making maps, doing the board members' bidding, and all the house-keeping of the website.  That's a lot of work.  But this is sort of important and maybe the Board should have hired someone to make sure the website was both up-to-date AND all the links were working.  I certainly don't blame the overworked staff for this.

But there are three attachments whose links do work.  These lead to PDFs from the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Calista Corporation, and the Bering Straits Borough.

In response to the two Board plans that looked like the most likely to be adopted, the Northwest Borough wrote (in part):

. . . Grouping Northwest Alaska with more urban communities near Fairbanks, tip [sic] the voting balance away from rural Alaska Native voters.  Consdier that the Northwest Arctic Borough by itself has a total population of just over 7,500 people, 6,548 of those voters are Alaska Native or part Alaska Native and only 4,868 people in the Borough ar over the age of 18.  The number of voers that our area is grouped with from a more urban area tied to Fairbanks includes 4,000 people.  Data shows that the communities in Northwest Alaska do not vote as frequently as those in urban areas, therefore the plan prepared by Taylor Bickford may show a majority Alaska Native district in Northwest Alaska, it does not actually represent a majority Alaska Native district . . .

Marcia Davis,  as General Council for Calista Corporation, writes (again, in part):
With regard to the two choices before the board, Calista prefers the Greene-McConnachie [sic] map. It is our understanding that this map places the majority of Calista's region within two house districts 37 and 38. We appreciate the recent change in the map that restored to District 37 the coastal towns of Kipnuk, Kwigilingok, and Kongiganak, and exchanged the high growth areas of Matsu and replaced them with Talkeetna, a slower growth community. It is important to Calista that District 37 remains strong as it is important that our incumbent Native , Senator Hoffman, who has high seniority be able to maintain strong Native support in this district. We also support the inclusion of the Native villages northwest of Kodiak along the coastline as this maintains the alignment of Native coastal communities in District 35. It is extremely important to Calista that the Alaska Native voting population not be reduced any further in District 38 (currently 46.98%) as this district does not have the favorable characteristics that Dr. Handley found to exist in the Bristol Bay Region, now part of District 36, that enabled the effective Native voting population percentage to be in the 38-41% range. In addition, because District 38 picks up some of the areas surrounding Fairbanks, this non-native population could grow and therefore dilute the Native population of District 38 over time, so the Native Voting Age percentage of District 38 needs to start off higher than the minimum needed for benchmarking it as an effective district.    Finally, we support leaving the NANA region and ASRC in the same house district 40.
Finally, Gail R. Schubert, President & CEO Bering Straits Native Corp, writes:

We understand that one of the plans under consideration expands the current District 39 to the South and SE, incorporating some of the middle and lower Yukon villages (Anvik, Grayling, Shageluk, and Holy Cross, among others), and also includes McGrath and Lime Village. This proposed district, while avoiding the East-West stretch BSNC has consistently opposed, has a significant and unacceptable flaw. We understand that it stretches the district to the south to incorporate Kodiak Island, and pairs the Bering Strait district with this southern district for a seat in the Alaska Senate. Given the Native/non- Native ratio in the Kodiak district, and the tremendous differences in subsistence lifestyles, economic scope and development between Kodiak and Bering Strait, BSNC cannot support this plan. We believe this plan threatens the continued, fair representation for the residents of the Bering Strait region, and significantly dilutes the Native population and our vote. We also believe that, over time, the non-Native population in the Kodiak district will grow, further diluting the Native population of District 39, and our Native voice and influence. For these reasons, we strongly oppose any redistricting map that pairs the Bering Strait district with the Kodiak district.

This is way too long and only covers a bit of what's going on.  But, enough's enough. 

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