Saturday, October 23, 2010

Constitutional Amendment to Enlarge Alaska Legislature - Ballot Measure #1

[UPDATE: January 2014:  Here's the link to the July 2013 Proclamation Plan that was approved by the courts.  It has maps and other information.  This plan will be in effect until the 2020 census data and the new plan then.  For coverage of the Redistricting Board go to the Redistricting Board tab under the Blog Heading above or click here.]

 [UPDATE January 2013:  Although the current districts (here and linked in the Aug 2012 update) have been rejected by the Alaska Supreme Court, the 2012/2013 districts are in effect now.  There will be new districts for the 2014 election.]

 [UPDATE August 2012:  GO HERE FOR CURRENT - 2012/2013 - DISTRICT MAPS]

[UPDATE JULY 2011:  I blogged the Alaska Redistricting Board's process spring 2011 and an overview of all those posts is available at this redistricting page (or click the Alaska Redistricting Board tab just above this post) and you can find information on the process and the final new maps they created.  And yes, Southeast Alaska lost a seat as predicted.]

In addition to candidates, Alaskan voters will have two bond measures (A and B) and one Ballot Measure.  I sat through some of the committee meetings in Juneau during the legislative session where this proposed constitutional amendment was debated, and while I don't claim to totally understand it, I'll try and convey what I did get.  And I'll try to make it as easy and clear as I can. 

Basically, the change would be from 40 representatives and 20 senators to 44 and 22. 


Primary Reasons:

  • The 2010 Census will show an increase in population in Anchorage, Matsu, Kenai Peninsula and probably Fairbanks.

  • This will necessitate redistricting to adjust for the increased population in part of the state.

  • With the current number of districts, rural Alaska districts will lose seats to the urban areas.  That may not sound like a problem, however it will mean

    • In rural districts, some of which are already enormous but sparsely populated and often without road access,  representatives and senators will not be physically able travel to many areas in their districts without enormous expenses and time allotments.  This is already a problem and will get worse.   In comparison, many Anchorage legislators can walk across their districts in a several hours. 
To get a sense of this, you can see on the map below how big some of the districts are.

Senate districts have letters (A, B, C, etc.) and two House districts (numbered 1-40) make up each Senate district.    So, House districts 5 and 6 are in Senate District C.  Senate District C is geographically the largest state Senate district in the United States.  To make it easier to see that on the map, I've added more red 6-C (Senate Seat C, House Seat 6) and 5-C symbols so you can see how huge Senate District C is.  You can double click the map to make it bigger or get your own, much larger, pdf of the map from the State Division of Elections.    I'd guess Senate District C is larger than most states.

Just for some perspective I've circled the Anchorage bowl which has 7 Senate districts.

Rep. Peggy Wilson of Sitka (House District 2) who introduced the House version of the bill, said there's one village in her district that costs her $1000 to fly to so she doesn't get there too often.  You get the point.  In some of the rural areas, people are scattered in small, isolated communities.  They are off the road system.  You can't easily get 300 people into a school auditorium like you can in Anchorage.  Or walk door-to-door and hit 200 households in a day.  So, legislators from these areas argue that if their districts get even larger, the quality of representation, of communication with their constituents, will get even harder.

I realize for people outside of Alaska who have never talked to one of their state reps, let alone their US Senators, this might not sound like a big deal.  But in Alaska, we all have access to these folks if we want. 

Primary reasons continued:

Federal Voting Rights Act. Besides the difficulty meeting constituents, visiting and knowing every part of their districts, there are some legal issues as well.  Alaska is one of 16 states monitored under this act.
Section 5 is a special provision of the statute (42 U.S.C. 1973c) that requires state and local governments in certain parts of the country to get federal approval (known as"preclearance") before implementing any changes they want to make in their voting procedures: anything from moving a polling place to changing district lines in the county. [emphasis added]
In Alaska's case, we are in this category because of violations of voting rights for Alaska Natives.  And the districts that would lose votes are in the rural areas with larger Alaska Native populations.  So, any changes in those districts will get special federal scrutiny to be sure that Alaska Native voting rights are not diminished.

Another reason, mentioned, mainly by urban legislators and generally not publicly, is that enlarging the legislature will keep some current legislators from losing their seats.  I can't imagine any legislator would put personal needs over public needs, so let's assume that their personal needs and the public needs overlap.

Redistricting Constraints

Voting Rights Act  - That was already discussed.

Alaska Constitution

The Alaska Constitution, Article 6, spells out requirements for house and senate districts.

[NOTE:  I like these boxes because they highlight key points for people, but they aren't accessible to the blind because they are images but the technology they have can only read text.  For any blind readers, the text of this box and the next are from Article 6, Section 6 of the Alaska Constitution.]

Alaska has, according to a Wikipedia chart based on 2005 population estimates of incorporated cities:
  • 26 communities with populations of 1000 or more. 
  • 123 communities with populations under 1000 including
    • 89 below 500
    • 15 with 100 or fewer people.
A lot of these are scattered about far from other populations and off the road system.

What does 'integrated socio-economic area" mean?  The Brennan Center lists the language above from the Alaska Constitution along with language from 23 other states and says they are versions of the idea of "community of interest."
Several redistricting criteria — like following county or municipal lines, or drawing districts that are compact — are in some ways proxies for finding communities of common interest. These are groups of individuals who are likely to have similar legislative concerns, and who might therefore benefit from cohesive representation in the legislature.
 I'm not sure how this criterion can even be met in Anchorage where many different types of communities - ethnically, politically, economically, etc. - live side by side.   Maybe they are united in their urban view of the world.

Other Issues


The original bills in the legislature called for increases of 8 representatives and 4 senators.  One of the questions that came up was whether there was enough room in each Chamber to house all the new legislators, plus whether additions to the capitol would need to be made to give everyone offices.  Cutting back to only six new legislators seemed to take care of most of the construction questions.  Below is a view of the House chambers.  There's room to squeeze in four more seats.  There's already an empty seat for the speaker who sits up front anyway. 

And the Senate should have no problem moving things slightly to fit in two more desks.
From the Legislative Website's Publication page
After HJR 38 passed the House State Affairs committee, with the change from 12 new legislators to six. I wrote following based on what was said in the committee.
This basically cuts the fiscal note in half. The estimated costs of the original resolution was about $4,470,000 million plus for each year and with the cut, it reduces the annual extra cost to $2,342,000. Also, wouldn't have to do any reconstruction changes.
If there have to be any new buildings, that will be more.  At one session Rep. Carl Gatto offered to build a new Capitol building in Wasilla.  Others suggested evicting the Governor and taking over the 3rd floor of the Capitol

A few more  points (which I haven't verified) made in the bill's Sponsor's Statement include:
  • Alaska has the smallest bicameral legislature in the nation. 

  • Since 1960 (Statehood was 1959) to 2006, 29 states have increased the size of their legislatures. 
  • Of the nine smaller states (509,000 - 1,429,000) the average size of the legislature is 134 (compared to our 60). 
  • The state budget has gone from $104 million in FY '61 to $7 billion today. 
  • All redistricting plans, after 1960,  have been successfully challenged in the courts and any reduction in rural districts is likely to make such a challenge a certainty again. 

So, should you vote to enlarge the the legislature?

Urban legislators don't seem to care too much unless they are interested in rural Alaska.

This is an important item for rural Alaska.

No matter what happens, given Gov. Parnell's appointments  to the redistricting board [the only report I could find after ten minutes of googling about the make up of the board - not simply the appointments - is the Alaska Ear], my guess is that the plan will be challenged no matter what.

I believe that the voice of rural Alaska is not well heard in Juneau as most of the legislators are from urban areas.  The ratio will be worse, even with the extra seats.  The size of the rural districts and the expense of traveling to all the towns and villages in those huge, roadless expanses make representing one's district far more difficult than in urban areas.

But if we could allocate the extra $2 plus million a year that the additional seats will cost to rural Alaska projects instead, that might be a better deal all around.  But that would never happen.

According to Article 13 of the Alaska Constitution, it will take a majority vote to pass. (It needed 2/3 vote in both houses of the legislature.)


  1. Won't the additional seats just get sucked up by the urban areas? If so, will it really help at all?

  2. "I can't imagine legislatures putting private needs over public needs."

    Nope! Neither can I; all of Alaska's lawmakers put the public above them. Haha.

  3. Anon 5:30, Good question. The legislators believe that adding the new seats will mean those seats go to the urban areas, but the existing rural seats won't be cut. Without the new districts, some districts won't have enough people and would have to be combined with other districts. But the new districts will keep the people/district low enough to keep the old rural districts. That's the thinking anyway.

    Hip Waders, watch the cynicism, it's not good for your liver.


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