Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Case That HD 5 Was Gerrymandered - Part 1

I'm dividing this into sections so it's easier to find the parts you want or need to read.

This is the first of two posts on HD 5 in Fairbanks.  The title reflects the implied case that the plaintiffs are making against the Board.  The Plaintiffs argue that HD 5 has compactness problems.  They also want a different pairing of House District 5 to make a better Senate seat - one that would make more likely the election of a second Democratic Senator in the Fairbanks area.  They don't use the word gerrymandering, but, as I mention below, the constitutional standards tend to stand as proxies for the harder to prove gerrymandering.

In Part 1 here, I want to give background.  In Part 2 we'll look at maps and details of HD 5 and the related Senate districts.  Other districts in Matsu and Kenai and rural Alaska are challenged by the plaintiffs, but just looking at this one in close detail will be more than enough to understand what's going on and what's at stake.  And, I hope, help people be able to react to the eventual court decision with facts as well as partisan fervor. 

Purpose of the Post

To make this accessible to people not following this day-to-day.
This isn't that hard to understand, it's just that there are so many details, that keeping it all straight is difficult.  Plus, a lot of stuff is subjective and requires someone who has enough grasp on the facts and the standards to come to an informed conclusion.  For example both sides will talk about compactness and then one side will say moving these people from this district to another will cause a ripple effect.  The other side says, no, they can be put into another district easily.  It takes someone who has watched the map making to have a better sense of which claim is more accurate.

As someone who has been to nearly every Board meeting held in Anchorage and at most of the others via the phone or online, I know that this is complex and that there is more to this than can be presented in the facts.  In this post I'm going to present what the parties have said and also give you my sense of which side is more persuasive.  But I have no special powers and other people who were there a lot might come to different conclusions.

Scope of this Post

I'm focusing on Fairbanks HD 5.  I think I understand this a little better than the other points being challenged - Matsu and Kenai and some rural districts.  Looking at HD 5 will inevitably get us into neighboring districts - mainly 3 and 4 - and into Senate Seats B and C.  I'm hoping, though, that if people get into the details of HD 5, they can get a grasp of the competing standards, and why this is all so difficult to prove one way or the other.  But at least, when the judge's opinion comes down, you'll be able to follow it.  

Background - How We Got Here

  1. The Redistricting Board submitted its latest redistricting plan July 14, 2013
  2. The Riley plaintiffs - George Riley from Ester and Ron Dearborn from Goldstream, two liberal leaning communities near Fairbanks - challenged the plan.  They also challenged the original plans as well, challenges that ended with the Alaska Supreme Court
    1. invalidating the first plan
    2. requiring some changes to accept the second plan as an interim plan that was used in the 2012 elections, because there wasn't enough time for a complete new plan, and
    3. determining the interim plan was unconstitutional and that the Board needed to make another plan for the 2014 election
  3. The Board objected to the plaintiffs challenges
  4. More briefs were filed with more details of the complaints.
  5. The Board filed briefs to dismiss the complaints
  6. The Alaska Democratic Party filed complaints.
  7. North Star Fairbanks Borough filed an amicus brief.
  8. The judge - Michael McConahy - can make summary judgments on some or all of these motions.  That means he can just decide who is right or wrong and issue an order.  Or he can say he needs more information and allow the two sides to make further arguments in court. My guess is that he may make a few summary judgments and then identify the points he needs to hear more on in court.  That court date is set for Dec. 9 - 16 in Fairbanks. 

You can see all these briefs at the Board's website.  In this post my focus will be on House District 5 to give you a sense of what the court has to decide.  But looking at 5 will mean also looking at the districts around it.  But there's lots there.  Here are the ones I'd start with:

Corrected Copy of Riley Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary*
Doc 296 - ARB's Response Part 1
Doct 296  ARB's Response Part 2
Doc 296  ARB's Response Part 3

*I can't find this one on the Board's list.  It was sent to me and I think it's a consolidation of previous motions.  It's long, but there aren't that many words on each page. 

Background - Redistricting and Gerrymandering

 These two words go together.  Redistricting is about redrawing the lines of the political districts (in Alaska's case since we only have one member of the US House, redistricting is only about the state house and senate).  How one draws the lines can have enormous impact on which party gets more members elected.  Gerrymandering is the term used to describe shaping districts to favor one party over the other.

It takes Wikipedia's entry on Redistricting only 253 words to start talking about gerrymandering.  At All About Redistricting's page What Is Redistricting? gerrymander is the 207th word.   My point is that most people who know anything about redistricting expect the party in power to take advantage of their power.  The only real question is can they make their maps so that they favor their side BUT also stay legal?

Both parties will claim, publicly, their innocence and exclaim the other party's guilt.  "We have done nothing but correct the gross abuse of the other party in the last redistricting."

ProPublica's Redistricting, A Devil's Dictionary identifies several of the typical gerrymandering ploys:
  • Cracking: This technique splits a community into multiple districts to ensure it doesn't have significant sway with a candidate. . .
  • Packing: When faced with too many unfriendly voters, it can also be a winning strategy to limit the damage by drawing them all into one district. The benefit for you is there are fewer of the voters you don't want in all the surrounding districts. When race is involved, redistricting pros call it bleaching.  . . .
  • Hijacking: If there's an incumbent you don't like, you can make their re-election difficult by putting them in a district with another incumbent to contend with. . .
  • Kidnapping: Most politicians have geographic political bases; places they came up in politics where they have supporters, political allies, donors and name recognition. But what if their home address ends up in a different district than their base? That can make re-election tough. . .
The ProPublica link gives more explanations and examples with maps.

This is like poker.  People keep as straight a face as they can while they make all sorts of claims.

The current partisan redistricting facts in Alaska are these: 

1.  The Alaska Supreme Court declared the process the Board went through last time to be unconstitutional.  The Board will tell you, and not incorrectly, that the Court found the process, not the product, unconstitutional.  But since the process was unconstitutional, the Court didn't look at each district's constitutionality.

2.  The Board has four Republicans and one Democrat.  The Democrat, Marie Greene, is the CEO of NANA Corporation, an Alaska Native Regional Corporation.  The Board  claims that all their decisions were unanimous and since they had a Democrat, it shows there was no partisanship.  I agree that almost all the decisions have been unanimous.  But my sense was that Marie Greene's main concern was to make sure that Alaska Natives were treated fairly.  She did not raise issues about other Democratic party concerns. 

3. The state Senate,  before redistricting, had a 10-10 split between Democrats and Republicans, with a bi-partisan coalition running the Senate.  After the 2012 election, which used the interim redistricting plan, the Senate had a 13-7 Republican majority.  Two Democratic Senators were redistricted into the same district in Fairbanks. (Note the ploy of Hijacking above.) Alaska's only Black legislator was given a far more conservative district than before (Cracking), and a Republican and Democratic Senator were put in the same district in Southeast Alaska.  There had to be a pairing of two incumbent Senators in SE, because of population decline. It could have been two Democrats, two Republicans, or one of each. 

4.  While the Chair of the Board declared, at the first Board meeting, that he had no instructions from the Governor (who appointed him) and had not even met with the Governor, the Chair of the Republican Party, Randy Ruedrich, was an active observer throughout the whole process.  The Executor Director of the Board had recently worked for Ruedrich as the Republican Victory Director in 2010.  I like the (now former) Executive Director and he was always fair and open with me.  And there is nothing illegal about these arrangements, but the Republican Party was able to share its opinions about the districts more easily than was the Democratic Party.

5.  The Board member who did most of the mapping of Fairbanks, Jim Holm, is a former Fairbanks legislator who was defeated by current Democratic representative Scott Kawasaki.  His original maps of Fairbanks turned out to have what was called by the Democrats "the Kawaski finger."  The house of S. Kawasaki was 'kidnapped' into another district by a small protrusion.  It turns out that the house belonged to Sonia, Scott's sister, but you can't convince the Democrats that it wasn't an attempt to put Scott into a totally different district.  The Board's attorney recently pointed out to me that the Court found, in the previous trial, the arguments of gerrymandering unpersuasive.  And I agree that the evidence presented probably wasn't enough to prove anything.  But being the one who does the maps where you lost your last election smells a bit like conflict of interest to me.

As a blogger, I'm more than conscious that raising these points will likely cause Republicans to declare my obvious bias.  But these are things I observed or heard about and to not mention them would also be bias. If readers are going to get a sense of what was happening I need to include them.  These points, by themselves prove nothing, but they do give the context for judging the outcome.   I also heard Democrats who said they would take the same liberties if they had been in power. 

I should also note that the Board’s rules, drafted by the Board’s attorney, Michael White,  say that gerrymandering is illegal, White has also said on a number of occasions, that no redistricting plan in modern times has been overturned because of political gerrymandering.   

The point is, unless a Board member says explicitly that they have gerrymandered, it’s hard to tell what was going on inside their heads. 

That’s why the process of redistricting is so controversial.  The Courts now use the more objective criteria of compactness, contiguity, etc.  as a proxy for gerrymandering.  They don’t call it gerrymandering, but if a district looks strange enough, it can be ruled not compact and thus unconstitutional.  No need to use the G word. 

So, the assumption by many, if not most, is that the Republicans are going to do their best to take advantage of their  4-1 majority on the Board to nudge the districts here and there to favor Republican candidates. 

And the Board members are going to deny this, because if they acknowledge gerrymandering, they would then have their plan thrown out.  So even if a Board were completely unbiased, there would be suspicion of gerrymandering.

And In The Board's Defense

I would also note that the Board meetings were all very accessible for anyone, like me, who had the time and was in Anchorage.  And most meetings, after the first few months, were accessible online or by phone. Most of the Board members and all of the staff were always willing to answer questions in detail during breaks and after meetings.   The Board had a difficult task before them balancing different criteria to map a huge state with a sparse population.    Strangely large districts are inevitable.  Compared to what's happened in some states, this Board has been transparent and did not get greedy.  I think some of the new districts also reflect the split within the Republican Party between the traditional leadership and the new Tea Party activists.  The court's decision is not going to be a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination.  

The question the Court will have to address is whether the issues that the plaintiffs raise are violations of the Alaska constitution, or whether the anomalies they allege are simply the by-products of balancing many factors to map a huge state with a sparse and scattered population. 

Part 2 will look at the maps and the details of HD 5 and neighboring house and Senate districts to help folks understand what is happening and why.  

[UPDATE Nov. 15, 2013:  Part 2 is now up here.]


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