Sunday, June 05, 2011

Are Anchorage Incumbent Pairings Unavoidable or Gerrymandering?

[The Alaska Redistricting Board has shown a fair amount of restraint.  But their Anchorage map, conceptually approved Saturday, still includes one pairing of two Democratic Incumbent representatives, and one pairing of a Democrat and Republican in a new more conservative looking district.  There are also two Democratic Senators in Districts close enough to tempt the board to pair them, even though there are Senator-less house districts nearby.]

Redistricting has two components.

The first is to technically get districts that meet the legal requirements.  In Alaska's case, that includes getting 40 house districts that are as close to equal (17,755 being the quotient when you divide the new Alaska Census total by 40 districts) as possible.  The absolute maximum under extreme conditions would be a 10% deviation from biggest to smallest districts, but in urban areas the expectation under 1% deviation.  Alaska also has requirements of the Voting Rights Act to meet - namely to make sure that Alaska Native voting effectiveness is not diminished.   Given Alaska's large geographic size, low population density in most places, and the movement of Natives into urban areas in the ten years since the last census, this isn't an easy task.  The Redistricting Board has specially made software to help, but it's like doing a gigantic jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are changing in color and size all the time.

The second component is politics.  How the maps are drawn will impact who gets elected.  The word gerrymandering comes from the redistricting process.  Traditionally, in the United States, the party in power gets to draw the maps and they tend to do it in a way that advantages their own party.

An interdisciplinary team at the University of Southern California has created a redistricting game you can play to get a sense of things I've been trying to convey here for the last couple of months. Here's their intro video (used with permission):

Click to go to the video at the Redistricting Game Website 

[Tech note: I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to shut off the auto start on this video.  I tried the normal ways, and one google hit suggested it might be built into the video.  But if someone can figure it out, please let me know.  I'll leave it like this a couple of days, and then probably just put up a screen shot with a link.  Listening to this every time you open this blog will get tiring.  But it's a cool video.  UPDATE June 7: I've switched it to a link now.  Click the image to see the short video.]

You can gerrymander different ways.  Matt Rosenberg's post on gerrymandering offers three:
There are three techniques used to gerrymander districts. All involve creating districts that have a goal of encompassing a certain percentage of voters from one political party.
The first method is called the "excess vote." It is an attempt to concentrate the voting power of the opposition into just a few districts, to dilute the power of the opposition party outside of those districts that contain an overwhelming majority of the opposition's voters.
The second method is know as the "wasted vote." This method of gerrymandering involves diluting the voting power of the opposition across many districts, preventing the opposition from having a majority vote in as many districts as possible.
Finally, the "stacked" method involves drawing bizarre boundaries to concentrate the power of the majority party by linking distant areas into specific, party-in-power districts.

Excess vote is a problem that exists already in Alaska due to where people live.  Alaska Natives are highly concentrated in rural districts in the North and West of Alaska.  Even though there is a significant number of Alaska Natives in urban areas now, they aren't concentrated enough geographically to have much power in any particular urban district.

I don't have the software to evaluate whether the board has used these techniques with the Fairbanks or Anchorage districts.  But the Alaska board has another method available.  And it's been used, I'm told, at least in the last two redistricting processes.  This is to draw lines so that incumbents have to run against each other.  I'm seeing two variations of this:
  • Ideally, you can pair two 'opponent party' incumbents in a district.  Since incumbents have an advantage in most elections, this takes out at least one strong 'opponent' candidate.
  • If that's not possible, you can also pair an 'opponent' incumbent against 'our' incumbent, by drawing the lines to move the 'opponent' into an unfriendly district where 'our' incumbent will defeat him or her. 
My personal sense is that because so many Alaskans, as you can see from the chart below, are registered as 'Non-Partisan' or 'Undeclared,'  it's hard to make entirely safe districts in the urban areas.  Though much of Alaska leans conservative.


TOTALAlaskan Indepen-
dence Party
(438 PRECINCTS) 489,960 14,476 74,844 9,336 127,408 78,684 178,238 2,367 2,864 1,743

That said, yesterday (Saturday)  the Board adopted, conceptually, an Anchorage map.  Altogether, it's relatively modest in terms of  pairing incumbents.  From what I can tell by looking at the maps, looking at AFFR's map of old districts and incumbents' homes, and talking to one of the AFFR folks, there appear to be two pairings and one potential Senate pairing.  

As for pairing two 'opponent party' incumbents - they've done that in the new district 30.  Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Mike Doogan have been paired.  They are currently in districts that don't even touch each other.  (Note:  The board is made up of four Republicans and one Democrat.)

On the east side, Democratic Rep. Pete Petersen has been paired with new Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt in a district that is stretched south and would appear considerably more Republican than Petersen's old district is. 

I've used a screen shot from Saturday's GoToMeeting webinar.  The districts are the colored blocks.  The red lines are the old district lines.  Then in the upper right and lower left, I've added parts of a map created by AFFR from the Board's Option 1 plan.  AFFR put the current district lines on the map and the location of the incumbents.  So I've added cutouts with the location of the incumbents affected with yellow arrows pointing to their districts in the new map. 
This gets much clearer and somewhat bigger if you double click

The cutout on the lower right - one cutout too many? - is the new district isolated.

They haven't told us how they are going to pair the House districts into Senate districts yet.  While they have plenty of options to avoid incumbent pairing, one worries that they might pair new districts 20 and 21 which would pit Democratic Senators Bill Wielechoski and Bettye Davis.  It's totally unnecessary. Districts 20 and 24  and then 21 and 23 could easily be paired.  And it would make complete sense to pair the two Eagle River districts. 

This board plan, dubbed by the Chair as JT1, is an improvement over their original draft plans which had more incumbent pairings.

Now, as I said above - and the redistricting game site makes clear -  this sort of taking political advantage is common across the country.  I'd say what the Board has done so far - even with this Anchorage map - has shown relative restraint compared to other redistricting exercises in Alaska and Outside.

And the board did NOT make preserving incumbents one of its guidelines so technically, they have no mandate to protect incumbents. (They talked about it and decided not to.)  However, as David Metheny said when he testified at a public meeting back in early May, "If anyone is going to fire my representatives, it should be the voters and not the redistricting board."  Put that way, it does seem the board should not pair incumbents when it's easily avoidable. 

Sometimes there may be situations where the board has no choice but to pit incumbents - two Republicans are pitted in SE Alaska where the population decline resulted in the loss of a whole district.  Then the board, after looking for other options as they did in SE, must bite the bullet.

But in Anchorage's case, it is pretty easy to draw lines for compact, socio-economically integrated (what the Alaska Constitution calls for) house districts without pitting incumbents.  The population is dense enough that they have lots of options, which they didn't always have in rural districts.

In fact, board member Bob Brody presented his map the other day which seems to do just that.  I'm not 100% certain.  The map I have isn't precise enough and I don't have the software that maps the information, but it looks like no one is paired.

I saved this large, so double click to enlarge

As I said above, what the Board has done this time round is relatively benign compared to past boards.  Though it's harder to whack the other party when there already aren't that many of them.  In Fairbanks, they appear to have made things harder for Democrats - though this time round  Jim Holm actually mentioned the incumbents and explained the reasoning for how he drew the lines.  I don't know Fairbanks well enough to evaluate.  But at least if the board's reasoning is on the record, people can determine if it makes sense or if it's just cover.

Yesterday (Saturday) when Chairman Torgerson presented his map - the one that was adopted conceptually - he tried to make it sound impartial.  He said that since none of the board members were from Anchorage, they really didn't know the city that well.  True and fair enough.  Therefore, he went on, he decided to start with the map that the Mayor of Anchorage had endorsed.

On the surface that sounds ok.  The map was actually presented to the board by Assembly President Debbie Ossiander who presented the plan "not as an individual, but as a member of the Assembly" along with the Mayor's chief of staff, Larry Baker, and the Municipal Clerk who is, essentially, an employee of the Assembly.  What was left unsaid by Torgerson and other board members who endorsed the idea of using the Mayor's plan, was that Anchorage is pretty split politically with the mayor's seat going in the last election from a liberal to a conservative, and the Assembly just losing its liberal majority by one member in the April election.  Also, there were two Assembly members who publicly rejected the plan, saying they had not been consulted.  Also unsaid is that the Mayor's plan is almost identical to the plan presented by AFFER - a group headed by the chair of the Alaska Republican Party.

I didn't hear any discussion of how the plan impacted incumbents or if this was unavoidable.  Deferring to the 'Mayor's Plan" allowed the board to avoid explaining why they drew specific district lines as they did.  So there was no discussion of whether Tuck and Doogan had to be paired up.  Or whether the Petersen-Pruitt pairing was unavoidable.  

All these people have a right to present their plans.  And the board has the right to use their plan.  It seems to me that a fair and transparent board would present all the facts and then, because they have a majority, they can do what they want, within the legal constraints.

To his credit, board member Bob Brody did raise the fact that two Assembly members had opposed the plan.  The response I heard was to reiterate that the Mayor backed it and to change to the topic.  Brody then voted along with the rest of the Board, including the lone member who was not appointed by a Republican office holder, Marie Greene. 

Political gerrymandering is against the law.  On their Legal Requirements page, the board lists:
D.   No political or racial gerrymandering.
Their attorney, Michael White, told me that no cases charging political gerrymandering had every been won.  I haven't looked that up.  And the Board can point to the SE pairing of Republicans to show that they weren't being biased.

But we know:
  • The board is using the Republican plan, renamed and slightly modified as the Municipality of Anchorage plan, and
  • It's possible to draw a plan that meets all the guidelines without pairing incumbents in Anchorage because board member Brody seems to have done it.
Probably, it could have been done in Fairbanks too.  Some of the proposed plans did that, though they used other Native district configurations than the ones the Board adopted which impacted Fairbanks. 

The board meets Monday at 10am.  If you can't come in person, you can listen in online and even watch their computer screen through GoToMeeting (webinar link in right column.)

Meanwhile go play the redistricting game.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.