Friday, July 05, 2013

Trying to Understand Problems I See At The Alaska Redistricting Board

This post is going to look at problems I see with the Alaska Redistricting Board.  This is meant to be descriptive more than judgmental, though some would point out that the word 'problem' itself is judgmental.    I’m reasonably certain about the actions I am reporting on, but I’m much less certain about the reasons.   This was going to be a series of posts so I wouldn’t overwhelm readers.  Or myself.  But while separating them makes it easier to talk about them, they really are all tangled together. 

Key problems I see:
  1. Public Access problems
    1. The Board doesn't say much about what it's doing and why
    2. The website - I’ll cover that in its own section, but basically things get moved, disappear, return, show up in different places, critical things don’t get posted,
    3. The state public notice website - the Board's official public notice, the only one that make sure they keep up to date, is the state's public notice website.  This is site that most people have never heard of, unless they are regularly looking to get contracts with the state.  It's not a place that most people check out regularly, or even know exists. It's much more user friendly now than when the Board started, but if you google "Alaska Redistricting Board"  it doesn't show up in the first ten pages of results (I stopped there.)
    4. One way on-the-record communication with public - The Board does not answer questions from the public on the record.  Board meetings have no public participation.  At public hearings the public has three minutes to say something.  The Board can ask questions,  Other than that,  it’s all one-way communication and no conversation.  People can ask the Board members questions during breaks, but anything that challenges what the Board is doing tends to be met with resistance.  Thus we don't know much about what the board is doing or why.
      1. It's hard keeping track of what the board is doing
      2. It's harder to understanding the motivation of the Board
      3. It's hard understanding what the differences are between all the plans
    5. When I asked a Board member about the disappearance of the court documents from the website, I was told that people should be able to go to the court websites and get them on their own.  The Board didn't need to do all that for the public.
      I know the Board likes to say they are by far the most accessible redistricting board in Alaska history.  And I've said before, that's not a high standard.  Besides, technology has changed radically in the last ten years so they should be the most accessible.  But I do appreciate the access I've been able to have via the Legislative Information Office and via telephone when the either the Board or I am not in Anchorage.

  2. Changing rules about when plans are due, and lack of rules for approving them, etc.
    1. The Board created seven plans.  Why?  Why not three or ten?  There was no public discussion of the purpose of the options or criteria for deciding which ones to keep or not keep.  They simply approved them all.     
    2. The Board had a deadline of noon, June 21 for third-party plans.  They then voted to approve all three state plans plus one Southeast plan.  There was no discussion of criteria for approving plans. 
    3. The Board then accepted more third party plans and posted them the day before the first public hearing.  There was no explanation of why they accepted plans after the deadline.  There hadn't been another meeting for them to change the rules or to accept more plans after the deadline.  It just happened. 
    4. When the Board added new and amended third-party plans after the deadline, it was problematic because others might not have submitted a plan or made changes because they thought that a deadline was a deadline.  At the very least the other group to submit a plan should have been notified that adjustments could still be made.  So I contacted Gazewood & Weiner, who had also submitted a third-party plan but not an amended one.  I talked to Michael Wallerie.  I wanted to know:
      1. If the Board had notified them that the deadline had been extended  [he said no]
      2. If the Board had sent the amended and new plans to them [he said no, but Calista had sent them their plans, but AFFER did not]
  3. The sheer number of different plans plus the Board's lack of information about each of their plans means the public has lots of data, but very little information.  The public hearing had seventeen plans for the public to read.  But there was no information about how the Board plans differed from each other or why. (This overlaps a lot with number 5 below.)
  4. Problems with the Board’s websiteLet me preface by saying I've gotten a lot of important information from the Board's website. 
    1. Keeping the website current has always been something of a problem.  But toward the end of the first round of creating plans, the website had begun to have useful information and much of it was fairly timely.  
      1. New maps got put up quickly.  
      2. There was a link with all the documents filed with the Courts.  
      3. But it took a little longer than forever for meeting transcripts to get posted. When the last executive director left, the website went to sleep.
    2. Information has disappeared, been moved, reappeared, and otherwise been hard to find
      1. The list of court documents - a very useful feature - disappeared.  I think.  I recently found it again.  But I had complained about it to three different Board people and none told me it was still there.  There's now even a litigation document link on the main page, but it says 'updated 6/28/12'.
      2. Old maps from the prior round disappeared - though links I had to them from this blog continued to work.  And recently I found the Amended Proclamation Plan in a new location.  
      3. Board meetings, when they were announced on the website, were usually on the main page.  Recently I looked for a meeting announcement and couldn't find it.  Later I found they were on the calendar - not a bad place, except the calendar hadn't ever been used before. 
      4. The best way to keep track of what's happening with the Board is through their subscription email.  That link is almost on the bottom of the right column on the main page. 
      5. The website problems were mentioned in one of the recent Court orders and I was told that the Board had contracted with a website managing company to keep the site up-to-date.  This is positive, but they really need someone who understands the Board's process and what the public needs to direct how the website is used.  Making a user friendly website isn't easy.  The Board has different information scattered all over the place in different formats.  There is no one person any more who knows the process who is also managing the site.
  5. Lack of discussion at Board meetings about their different maps, how they were different, why they had those differences, etc.
    1. Third parties were asked to present their plans at the public hearings.  They were given 30 minutes to do this.  They tended to explain the factors that were important in creating their maps - such as keeping  the deviations low or respecting ANCSA boundaries - then they talked about why they made decisions to things the way they did.  They’d say, for example, we looked at splitting Matsu to connect with Anchorage here,  or we used the east side of Fairbanks for the rural district because the military are much more transient than the people on the east side and they don’t vote nearly as much.  
    2. The Board has been doing this work for two years now and they need the Third party map makers to explain their maps to them. 
    3. The Board had seven plans but they did not explain any of their plans to the public.  One person, Lois Epstein, an engineer who works with GIS, asked a couple of the Board members, during a break in the testimony, to explain the logic of their plan.  PeggyAnn McConnochie, one of the more technically savvy members of the board said they followed the Constitutional criteria.  Asked if she could be more specific, she told her it was too complicated.  The tone of McConnochie’s answer said, “Why are you asking me this?  This is an unreasonable request.”  I talked to Epstein right after that and tried to find out more of what she was after.  Basically, she wanted to know what criteria they programmed into the computer - was keeping boroughs intact the key one?  Or low deviation?  Or what?  I told her the ones I understood - equal population in each district, yes, trying to keep boroughs intact, compactness, contiguity, etc.  But as we discussed this I realized that covering this process so long had lowered my expectations.  That yes, the public was just as entitled, probably more so, to an explanation of each of the Board’s plans as the Board was to explanations of the third party plans.  I say lowered expectations because two years ago, I suggested on this blog that the Board needed to give the public more information about each plan so that the public would understand them enough to actually make comments that mattered.
    4. This is not to say that a few organizations with the interest and resources to pay experts to follow this process closely, haven't been studying these things closely.

      In fact, the first time we all went through this process, the Board, at their meetings, did talk about each of the plans and why they were done the way they were done.  But that didn’t happen this time.  There was no public discussion of the plans.  They only voted to accept them all.
  6. No discussion at Board meetings about what Section 2 of the VRA requires of them.  The Board has been holding off action in hopes that the Supreme Court would rule that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act would no longer be in force, on the grounds that they would then only need to meet the Alaska Constitutional requirements.  
    Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was invalidated by the Supreme Court recently.  Section 4 was the formula for determining which states and localities needed pre-clearance as required in Section 5 of the VRA.  Since the criteria are no longer in effect, Alaska and the other states that had been required by Section 5 to get pre-clearance no longer need to.
    However, Section 2 is still in force.  The Board doesn't need pre-clearance, but it does need to comply with Section 2.  If they don't, they can be challenged by the Department of Justice or by Alaskans in court.  Such a challenge could cause long delays.
    The differences between the standards for Section 5 and Section 2 are not completely clear.  I recently wrote in a post on this that it appeared that Section 2 required proving intent while Section 5 only required proving a discriminatory effect.  In the public testimony, Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund "pointed out to the Board that though Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is not in force now, Section 2 is.  And contrary to some media reports Section 2 does not require intent.  It too is evaluated on impact on protected groups."  Board attorney Michael White agreed with her.
    But there's been no public discussion of this by the Board.  They've simply concluded they just need to meet the state Constitutional requirements and all will be well.  Something seems to be missing.
  7. Disruption of the Voting Process

    Redistricting is necessary, because maintaining the one-person one-vote principle requires some adjustment as population changes.  The US Constitution recognized this and requires states to adjust every ten years.
    But this adjustment is disruptive.  New districts require citizens to learn new borders, often new representatives, and new polling places.  Generally redistricting boards should minimize these disruptions while they balance the other criteria such as one-person one-vote, compact and contiguous districts, etc. 

    Another disruption when districts are changed too much is that Alaska state senators, normally elected to a four year term, can be truncated.  That means their term is shortened and they must go up for election at the next election after redistricting.  19 of the 20 Alaska Senators had to run for election in 2012.  That was the end of four years for some.  But for others, it meant they had to run for reelection after only two years.  And then the Board determined which new Senate districts would have two year terms and which four year (so that terms stayed staggered.)  So some Senators could have been required to run for office three times in  in six years (2008, 2010, and 2012.)  I haven't looked to see if there are actually any senators who came out this way.  But if there are, with new redistricting, it's conceivable that a senator would now have to run again in 2014 AND 2016 if the Board doesn't pay attention to this. 
    For most states, this happens only once every ten years.  But because the Board failed to create an acceptable plan for 2012, they are making another plan now.  For the second election in a row, Alaskans will be confronted with new districts, and in some cases new representatives.  And State Senators again face truncation and having their terms set for only two years. 
    This has not been discussed by the Board, but it seems to me that when the Board creates the new plan, they should be working hard to minimize such disruptions by keeping the new maps, when possible, as similar to the old ones as possible to avoid these disruptions for voters that degrade the quality of their representation in Juneau.  And that degrade the intent that Senators have a longer term view because they get elected every four years instead of two. 
    It's important for voters to know who their representatives are, to establish relationships with them, and to know their district and polling place.  The quality of representation is better this way. As I recall this issue was discussed by the Supreme Court when the Board's case was before them.
    This hasn't been mentioned at all as the Board reviews plans this time round. 

Why are these things happening? 

I can’t tell you exactly because I don’t have access to enough information about what the Board members are thinking and what they say to one to another when others aren’t listening. [I'm not charging any hidden conspiracy here.  Board members - if only two are present - can talk to each other about these things.  If I were on the Board, I'm sure I would.]  So I don’t know for sure how decisions got made or didn’t get made.   But I can speculate and here are some possibilities:
  1. It’s lack of resources
  2. It’s incompetence
  3. It’s the inherent conflicts in the task 
  4. It’s intentional
  5. It’s Group Think
  6. It’s that Board members’ models of their job and their obligations are totally different from mine
I think that there are different reasons for different problems and that in each case it isn’t simply one or the other, but some combination of them.  And some problems exacerbate others.  For instance, not hiring an executive director means they don’t have the human resources necessary to keep the website up to date.  I think the board’s views of what public participation means also makes the website a lower priority for them than for me.

I'll go through these issues in another post. There is already way too much for people to chew on,

1 comment:

  1. Add the all too obvious intent of this board, (nothing has changed in that regard,) ...add that intent to the all too evident incompetence and you don't have to wonder too much anymore about why the process is so unworkable.

    The courts are remiss in their duty in not removing this board from the process.

    The public loses.


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