Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Voting Rights Act and Planning the End Game

Tuesday's redistricting board meeting began at 10:08am. I'd already dropped my computer off at MacHaus after it stopped working after they put in a new fan. I'm trying not to whine here, but I miss my laptop, which is why this hasn't been posted sooner. But every change makes us see new opportunities right?

Tuesday's meeting had three main parts:

1. Discussing feedback from the round the state public hearings. I want to look at this in more detail, but I'd say that the board is a little behind the times when it comes to public hearings. Their public planning was pretty off-the-cuff - minimal notice as I've documented before, little or no education packets that would give participants an idea of the statewide requirements that caused them to do things that didn't seem to make sense to local areas - particularly the Voting Rights Act requirements that led them to pair Ketchikan and Kodiak. Locations were added because someone asked to be added, with no discussion of how that would benefit things. No consideration was given to using all the teleconferencing available today (ie skype, and the other internet video meeting programs) to deal with distant places. In Southeast they had between 3 and 33 people show up at meetings. While I'm sure people were glad to see that the board took time to send people to some remote towns, I never heard the board discuss the tradeoff's in time and money. I'm a strong believer in public participation, and I've seen it done professionally. This wasn't. And it's not clear how they are going to use the feedback. Some, clearly will be useful to make minor adjustments to improve socio-economic cohesiveness. In other cases, if two people testified they liked the Rights or AFFER plan better, is that a representative sample of the 17,755 people in a district and does it make sense to cite those two to justify use of one plan or the other? But they did say things today like, "Most people at the meeting thought . . ." as though it mattered in any statistically meaningful way.  Again, if it pointed out local conditions the board didn't know, it might be helpful, if it was just unsupported opinion, it's questionable.   [I realize that I've shifted into analysis here and have only given a little back up data. But this is something I do know a little about and I'll try to support my basic view better in another post. My sense is that the board more or less copied what was done in previous redistricting boards without really giving much thought to it. Say, in contrast to hiring an expert as they did with the Voting Rights Act information. I understand that they knew they had to get an expert for the VRA because they need pre-clearance from the DOJ and it's very complex. But doing participation right is also more complicated than posting a schedule on the State online public notice website and then showing up in towns around the state. And, they obviously did more than that because they had to arrange for rooms to meet in etc. But if you disagree with me, then show me the notice that was given to people and the information given them so they could prepare before the meetings with meaningful comments. From what I could tell, many people showed up because they were contacted, not by the board, but by one or more of the groups that prepared plans.]

2. Voting Rights Act discussion with their contracted consultant Lisa Handley by phone. I posted a lot of the basics Monday after the post-meeting discussion. I'm going to skip over the details of this for now - it's late and I have an early morning meeting. The key issues were:
1. the groundrules for what was needed to get approval from the DOJ had shifted a bit. The percent of Natives and which Natives (Voting Age Population -VAP - not total population), after Handley's analysis of voting patterns from 2002 to 2008 changes things a bit. When the board asked for firm numbers, the consultant said, it isn't that easy, and listed various factors that would change the basic percentage needed - such as whether whites added to a district had voted in a bloc with or against Native bloc preferred candidates. Member Holm got a bit testy at one point and said, basically, "Our job is to draw lines to meet benchmark numbers. When you don't give us a number, then we can't draw maps."
Despite the changes, she basically said that eight of the Minority effective or influence districts looked good and there was only a problem with one Senate district. And that some of the privately drawn plans seemed to have gotten nine good districts, so it could be done. Attorney White wasn't sure if those other plans had used total or voting age population.

In a discussion during the break, someone said that these numbers were coming really late - after the draft plan had already been done - because in previous redistricting exercises, the Legislature had done the administrative work for the board and they can do sole source bidding. But this time the Governor's office took over and they had to do competitive bidding which has a much longer time line to completion. That is something that needs more verification. My guess would be that competitive bidding is better for lots of reasons, but it just needed to be done soon enough to get the analysis done in time to be used in the draft plans.

3. Strategy to finish the plan by June 14.

Order of regions.  They seemed to agree that it was necessary to get the rural districts set first because they needed to meet the Voting Rights Act criteria.  The rural maps might or might not impact the urban areas, so they should wait until the rural areas were done.   Member Brody observed something like, "We spend 90% of our time on the rural areas, and 10% on the urban areas, where most of the population live."

Amount of deviation.  Some seemed to think that if the deviation in the urban areas weren't quite so tight (mostly under 1%) then it might be easier to get the VRA requirements met.

Group of pairs/individuals.  Deja vu time. The debate on whether pairs of members/staff should work on maps on their own in the mornings and then have the whole board discuss them in the afternoons was a big part of the discussion back in March on how to do the draft plan. The main advocate for everyone doing things together in the meetings was member Bob Brody. PeggyAnn McConnochie Tuesday was the main advocate for doing individual preparation before the meeting on the grounds that there simply isn't enough time, though this seemed to be preferred by most of the others too.

I think some of this is just personal style. Some people work better alone, others in groups. If I were on the board, I'd need time to study stuff on my own first. But someone else mentioned to me after the meeting that political manipulation can take place more easily out of public view.  This person also acknowledged that it's hard for more than two people to do this together.

I'd say if there were clear groundrules set up (and they discussed groundrules too) then individuals would have guidance on what they could and couldn't do on their own.  Particularly about whether they would or wouldn't pay attention to where incumbents live and if they'd try to draw lines to preserve incumbency. They agreed at an early meeting in March that this would not be a criterion, but when they publicly worked on Southeast for the draft plan, they did discuss how incumbents were affected.  They either claimed not to know the impact on incumbents (for Fairbanks) or just didn't mention it (for Anchorage.)  Did they have lists of incumbent addresses when they finished the Anchorage maps?  No one said.  Or did some people know this information and make changes with this in mind while others didn't know?  We don't know.  This DID NOT come up at the meeting.  But given that people have charged that gerrymandering was a big factor in the last two redistricting processes, it seems reasonable to raise these questions for this one.

Chair Torgerson adjourned the meeting just before 2pm until 10am Wednesday. (I'd brought a sandwich knowing the chair hasn't given many lunch breaks in the past.)  One of the spectators pointed out to staff after the meeting that public notice said the Wednesday meeting would begin at 2pm, so, I was told after the meeting by staff it won't start until 2pm.

I think the time crunch is going to hit the board hard soon.

I'd also mention that Lisa Demer of the ADN was there Monday and Tuesday, so look for a story there.  I don't see one up yet.

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