Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Republicans must exploit this advantage without mercy." Can Redistricting Board Be Fair?

For many politicians, the decennial census provides an opportunity for parties in control of a State governorship and legislature to tip the political scales even further in their favor.  An example of that thinking comes from a post at the Charleston Tea Party blog:

In particular, the Republicans gained absolute control – that is, control of both state legislative bodies and the governorship – in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, among other states.  These three states must surrender 4 House seats due to lost population.  Likewise, Texas, Florida, Utah, South Carolina, Georgia and Arizona, who collectively gain 10 House seats – are all under Republican absolute control.  This control should ensure Democrat [sic] losses and Republican gains (Note 1).
In other words, if Republicans have the guts to exercise their constitutional powers to the fullest, they can claim most of the reapportionment changes.  Moreover, if they have the guts to also redraw the boundaries in various Democrat-held districts, many more Democrats can be evicted from Congress in the 2012 elections.  You can bet the Democrats will do the same in the few districts they still control.
The point is this:  Republicans have the overwhelming constitutional advantage.  Republicans must exploit this advantage without mercy.  This is the only way to stop the Democrats’ ruinous socialist agenda and reverse it.
The Tea Party Movement can play a critical role here.  Activists should lobby their governor and their state legislatures.  Demand that they exact the full price of reapportionment.  Demand that they exact the full price of their newly gained redistricting powers.  Nothing less is acceptable 

Four of Alaska's Redistricting Board's five members were appointed by Republicans.  The fifth member was appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court whose political affiliation isn't clear, but is presumed to be left of the others.

Two of the five are former Republican legislators.  One, Jim Holm, lost his seat in 2006 to Democrat Scott Kawasaki.  Is there motivation on his part to realign the Fairbanks districts to make them more friendly to Republican candidates?

Clearly, the representatives of the Democratic Party who attended the Redistricting Board's meeting Wednesday had this background in mind.  Their comments pushed the issues of fairness, transparency, and warned against private conversations with politicians and gerrymandering.

Deborah Williams, The Executive Director of the  Alaska Democratic Party said: [this, like other comments below, are from my notes at the meeting, definitely not verbatim, but close]:
This Board has the technical ability to make our votes meaningful or not very meaningful. The ability to gerrymander, depriving people of meaningful voting. And also to draw lines to hurt political parties and by keeping current office holders out. I’m not hinting this board is going to do that.

Our current districts in Anchorage and Fairbanks are compact and represent the communities well. There will have to be adjustments . . . But avoid pitting incumbents against each other and gerrymandering. There can be - as you say in your own documents - no political gerrymandering. Our constitution says this should not be political. Thank you so much for your work. You’ve heard from a lot of Democrats today, We do care a lot. We really wish you the best.
They did hear from a lot of Democrats who were clearly worried about lines being drawn to their disadvantage.  But only one obvious Republican testified, but Republican Party Chair Rudy Ruedrich, spoke by phone  as a private citizen, not representing the Republicans, and his issue was having prisoners counted in their home districts, not where they are incarcerated.  (The Board didn't think the could get the necessary information to do that in a timely manner.)  Why did the Republicans think they didn't need to be there?  When the Democrats thought they did.

Geric Jordan, the Mayor of Sitka, and another Democrat, via audio conference, wanted to know whether individuals would be able to speak to board members one on one.
Response:  Yes, but open meeting law means no more than two members can meet without it being an official meeting.

Jake Metcalf, the redistricting coordinator for the Alaska Democrats, said things like: 
  • I know that you and the Board have one of democracy's most important tasks to complete in a fair manner.
  •  My advice is to avoid backdoor politics, the board has to follow open meetings law. . . open government, transparency especially important in this process.
  •  I’m wondering if the board individually or in groups of one or two have met with Mr. Ruedrich. [Chair of AK Republican Party.]  If there have been conversations, what I’d ask for is that in the future to avoid backdoor politics, that in future such meetings all parties at the meeting. Important. 
Response from Torgerson:
I’ve met with Mr. Ruedrich as much as I’ve met with you. Zero. Call me and I’ll meet with you. Not saying we’ll agree, but you’ll be able to pull on my ear. Some..
Lupe Marroquin, who worked in the Anchorage division of elections and ran as a Democrat for State House last year asked:
What is the involvement of the Governor’s office in this process?  Have you had any conversations with the Governor and if so what were the topics and how were they resolved and will the public continue to be advised?
John Torgerson response:
This is a constitutionally created board, neither under the legislature nor the governor. We cannot be public officials. We have to be independent, to keep board as private citizens. Governor appointed two members - other than initial interview, I’ve had no conversations with the governor. Don’t intend to.
So, by their presence and questions, the Democrats showed they are worried.  And by their absence (except on the Board itself) the Republicans seem to be suggesting they aren't.

Is this going to be a fair and honest redistricting devoid of political considerations?  I think, given the political mood of the country, this is a fair question.  I don't know the answer, but I can offer some signs I saw at the meeting and since.

Rejection of 'protecting incumbency' as a redistricting criterion

I've posted about the redistricting criteria in a previous post.  The discussion here focused on whether the board should even consider incumbency - would they intentionally or accidentally draw the lines to exclude an incumbent from his base?  Would they put two incumbents in the same district?  If they don't know an incumbent's address, might this happen?  Attorney Michael White said that if they were even going to consider this in their decisions, they need to make it a criterion.  But that given the Department of Justice oversight to make sure there was no retrogression ["drawing a district in a manner that worsens minority voting strength"] they would probably have to consider, as I understood it, Native incumbents.

So I don't know if this is good or bad.  If they wanted to draw the lines to weaken their opponents' political base, they could check the addresses outside the meetings and in the meetings never talk about it.  But if the Board did cut Democratic incumbents out, or put two Democratic incumbents together, presumably in the Post-Plan phase people would bring it up and they would have to talk about protection of incumbents.

I guess we'll see what this means when the draft plan is done April 14.

Transparency and Openness
The board sounded like it was committed to transparency and openness. 

Positive indicators:
  • There will be a lot of public meetings.  
  • All the documents submitted will be put on website for everyone to read.
  • Some of the Pre-Plan public hearings will be teleconferenced statewide. (Anchorage (March 22), Fairbanks (March 28), Juneau (March 24), and Statewide (March 31).  I'm guessing the decision to teleconference was related to access to technology.
  • Torgerson asked about videotaping all the meetings, but seemed to be talked out of it when he learned it would require camera people. 
  • The discussion at the meeting emphasized openness 
    • when asked point blank about ex-parte contact Torgerson said that there hadn't been any. 
    • Torgerson pushed successfully for setting meeting times every afternoon during the last ten days, after the public hearings, when the Board would, in open meetings, discuss the various plan options.  That nothing would be hidden.
Negative Indicators
  • There will be a lot of public meetings, BUT it will be difficult for people to develop plans in time for the meetings
    • there is a lot of information on their website, but there is little guidance how to use it
    • there is computer software that allows people to plug in different criteria and it spits out a plan - but the clerk from Valdez said it cost them $1000.  It may or may not be available on the website, which doesn't explain much yet.  (I hope yet is the critical word and more will be up there, but at this point I suspect this blog has more, accessible information on redistricting than they have.  I say that as a point of disappointment in what is available to help people understand things.)
    • for those hearings not teleconferenced, it's not clear how long it will take for audio or transcripts to be available.  They said transcription turnaround from the state sanctioned vendors would be 7-10 days.  And then one has to read it.
  • Notice for the public hearings didn't go up on their website until Saturday afternoon - they met and agreed on the locations and times on Wednesday.  And the first public hearing is Tuesday.  And I'm not sure where else information is posted.  The First Alaskans Institute testified that they were getting the word out, but I don't see information on their website either.
  • Publicity about the Board and its process for the next 30 Pre-Plan days and then the 60 Post-Plan days doesn't seem to exist.  
    • It appears no one from ADN was at the Wednesday meeting.  There was one Anchorage Daily News piece I've seen on Census data and population changes that mentioned the Board. 
    • The television cameras stayed for the first hour of the six hour meeting.  Here's what KTUU has posted about the meeting:
    • The board held its first major meeting Wednesday, after it got a preview of the data on Tuesday.
      The board has about 30 days to publish a preliminary re-districting plan from the date it received the new census data.
      Wednesday's meeting included a lot of housekeeping items, but also a time for public testimony, where the board heard concerns from Alaska residents on what these census numbers will mean politically when it comes to redistricting.
      Redistricting can be best described as drawing political boundaries.
      Every 10 years the state re-draws the State Legislature election districts. The goal is to reflect the changing population accurately so residents have a fair and equal share in the way they are governed.
      “The redistricting clearly sets the boundaries for the new legislative district. It's really important,” said John Tongerson [sic], the chairman of the Alaska Redistricting Board. “It's really a mathematical equation. We have to get as close as we can to get an ideal 17,755 people per district.”
       The board has until April 12 to come up with a preliminary plan.
Board Dynamics

This didn't feel like a group that knew each other well and were a team ready to go get the Democrats.  Robert Brodie - who came two hours late due to fog in Kodiak - seemed like someone used to being in charge and talked a fair amount given he kept saying he was new to this and trying to figure it out.   He was surprised the staff would come up with plans to present and he suggested doing Anchorage and Palmer in one day.  But later he pushed for there to be a second Anchorage opportunity at the end as the site for the Statewide Teleconference.  He argued for Anchorage's larger population needing more time to present.

There seemed to a clear Myers-Briggs type difference between him and Torgerson.  Torgerson proposed that in the last ten days, people should work on their own or in pairs, or meet with the public and then the Board would come together every afternoon about 2:30 for public meetings.  Brodie didn't understand what people would do all morning.  Torgerson saying he needed time on his own to think things through, sounded like a Myers-Briggs introvert needing alone time.  Brodie sounded more like an extrovert, wondering what people would do all morning by themselves, wanting to spend more time in meetings, and thinking by talking. (A wild guess there.)

McConnochie, a recent replacement, seemed well prepared and eager to get going.  She's spent time mastering the computer program and seemed to look forward to playing with it.   I thought this comment was interesting, but I'm not sure how to interpret it:
I’m naive enough that considering who is in the district and who might run against them is less important than socio-economic integration.
Either she is really naive, or this was disingenuous.   But I couldn't tell which.

You can get a sense of the group dynamics in this video I took before my sound card got full.

Other Indicators

Chair John Torgerson

Torgerson did most of the talking.   He seemed like a practical, goal oriented chair, but open to others' suggestions.  He just didn't want them to talk them to death.  When the attorney suggested not having closing times for the public meetings - in case the meeting ended early - Torgerson said he was willing to sit around in case people showed up late.   He seemed a little miffed that people would think the Board is politically motivated.  Though I though his frustration with Dave Metheny - who complained people couldn't get information from the Board fast enough - was justified.
Torgerson: "What haven't you been able to get?"
Metheny- "Census data, timelines of meeting, phone lines. We want to get our people plugged in."
Torgerson: We got the census data yesterday, it was on the web in two hours. How much faster should we do it?
Dave Metheny: That’s fine.
But overall, and even here, I felt his tone suggested impatience with questions about the Board being fair.  He spoke as though the idea of Board gerrymandering  or doing anything else fishy was ridiculous.

But given the national publicity on the Republican opportunity to gain during this apportionment period - as evidenced in the opening quote above - I'd like someone who would acknowledge the concerns more directly and not seem to take it personally.

He seemed to have done his homework and knew what the rules were.  I couldn't tell if he was going to be true to his word or whether he was an accomplished politician who knew how to say the right things at the right time. 

The Crunch of Time

There are 30 days starting last Tuesday for the Board to come up with a redistricting draft plan.  They are spending Tuesday and Wednesday in Anchorage and Wasilla public hearings from noon to 7 pm.  Then the travel to Juneau and Ketchikan for public hearings Thursday and Friday.  Then the next Tuesday is Fairbanks, Wednesday is Kotzebue, Thursday is Bethel.  Friday March 31 is back in Anchorage for a Statewide Teleconference.  They are all scheduled for seven hours.

Then they have ten days to play with their software and come up with plans that redistribute the state population into districts that are as close as possible to 17,755 each.  For each of those days they will have afternoon public meetings - the only times the more than two board members can talk together - each of those days as they settle on their draft plan.  Those will be the days where it is important to see what they do and how they do it.

I don't know how much time ordinary people will have to prepare for these first meetings.  I don't know how much time the Board members will have to think with all those hearings and the travel.

Then there are 60 more days - til June 14 they said - to make changes in the draft plan.  The traveling schedule for that period is even more hectic, but it won't be as a full board.

Watching What they Do as Opposed to What They Say

They spoke well about openness, about getting everything up on the website.

But the website has almost nothing on it.  Sure, there are links to documents, but they are complicated documents that could use a little online explanation so you know which PDF files to open.

There's nothing that explains the overall process and the lingo.

There's almost no media coverage - no announcements in the Daily News of the Tuesday hearing yet.  So, when are people supposed to learn about the public hearings and when are they supposed to get up to speed so they can just figure out what their concerns are, let alone document them and articulate them?

Is this by design - yes, we'll have lots of hearings and spend our $1 million plus budget to show that we went all over the state to hear people's opinions - is it incompetence, or is it lack of enough staff, or is it just starting and all this will happen eventually?  But they are going to be traveling next week, so I don't see when they'll have time to get the website and other publicity going during the Pre-Plan stage.  We'll see.

Department of Justice and Voting Rights Act

One other key factor is that not only are the Democrats ready to sue if they feel they aren't treated fairly, Alaska as one of 16 states on the Department of Justice Voting Rights Act watch list.  Whatever the Board decides, must be approved by the DOJ as I understand it.

Meanwhile, Anchorage folks, there's a seven hour hearing beginning at noon at the Legislative Information Office on Tuesday.  Drop in and see what is going on.  Look at the maps.  Ask about whether there will be public computers available that have the software that allows you to test out different plans.
The rest of you can go to your LIO offices and listen in.  Or listen online through the Legislative website.

Matsu folks can go to their meeting at the Wasilla on Wednesday, again from noon to seven.

Fairbanks on Thursday.

My last post has the email from the Board with details and links about the public hearings.

1 comment:

  1. I trust none of this. Lines should be drawn by numbers of people only. distinction of party is going to happen. These board members must sleep with the knowledge of how they respond.


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