Friday, May 20, 2011

Brainstorming Day at the Board - Brody's Proposal Shot Down

Notes on the Thursday, May 19, 2011 Alaska Redistricting Board meeting.

I got to the meeting about 20 minutes late - it turns out my wife's computer clock is about 30 minutes slow.  Eric Sandberg, the GIS expert on loan from the Department of Labor, was going over some Southeast maps.  Since I still didn't have my computer, (I got it after the meeting and so far so good)  I'll try to just highlight what I saw happening Thursday.  The next meeting is Friday beginning at 2pm at 411 W 4th Avenue Suite 302. An email announcement said the board would be live-streaming the meetings this week.  Check here. [I don't see it listed under 'scheduled' but maybe it will be there when it is live at 2pm.]

1.    Looking at maps to see if they could find a way to get to nine Native districts while trying to meet other goals such as:
  • keep the deviations within reason
  • respond to the feedback they’d gotten at public hearings such as for Southeast:
    • Haines and Skagway didn’t want to be paired with Juneau    
    • Wrangell and Saxman wanted to be with Ketchikan
    • Prince of Wales Island didn’t want to be divided
One of Several Southeast Attempts
On Wednesday, PeggyAnn McConnochie and Marie Greene went over their attempts at Southeast and the Native Districts in North and West Alaska.  There was a lot of frustration voiced at how much trouble they had.  The only ways they could get the percentage of Native Voting Age Population up to 35% (the minimum the Voting Rights Act consultant seemed to be saying was necessary for Southeast) required them to go against the wishes of, say the Wrangell folks who said they should be in a district with Ketchikan, not Sitka.  The columns on the bottom of the screen of the Southeast map are:
  • Total Persons, 
  • Target (17,755 for all districts), 
  • Deviation %, 
  • Deviation # (how much above or below the target), 
  • Percentage Native+White, 
  • Percentage Native + All (those identifying on the census as Native and Native+White, then
  • Native and Native plus any other ethnicity, 
  • Percentage voting age Native and Native+White, 
  • Percentage voting age Native and Native+All
All this plays an important role in getting pre-clearance from the US Department of Justice because Alaska is one of 16 states monitored under the US Voting Rights Act.  

My sense, listening to them was that they were trying really hard to get good numbers and also respect the wishes of the people who came to the public hearings.  They also talked openly about how the different groupings affected incumbents.  There are four Republican and one Democratic house members in SE and two Republican and one Democratic Senator.  In most of the attempts two Republican incumbents were paired in the House, and two Republican Senators were paired.  Incumbent Democrats were not paired. 

Today, Eric Sandberg showed some other attempts to carve out a Native district in Southeast.  Then Taylor Bickford showed some, what they called "creative" maps of the rest of the Native districts.  They acknowledged they were going against the wishes they heard at the public hearings but they were trying to see if they could pull out nine Native districts. 

This is the map with the big green turtle in the middle, well that's what I see.  As they said, these were experiments to see if they could come up with nine legitimate Native Effective or Native Influence districts. 

2.  Strategy for Finishing

Board member Bob Brody (who, along with member Jim Holm was at the media via phone Thursday) raised a strategy issue. He was concerned that the Board was spending too much time now on the Native districts. He acknowledged their importance in getting Voting Rights clearance, but he was concerned that the board was spending so much time on ten districts and in the end would only spend a very short amount of time on the other 30 districts. He felt that the board should be spending time now on Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai, and Matsu. As close to verbatim as I was able to write, "Looking at the schedule, we're putting a huge amount of time into 10 districts - then we'll have to slam bang into the other 30."

He proposed setting up four principles:
  1. Draw five districts wholly in Matsu.
  2. 16 house districts in Anchorage with surplus available for anywhere needed
  3. 3 Kenai districts - with surplus for anywhere
  4. 5 Fairbanks districts - with the half house seat surplus available as needed
John Torgerson immediately opposed this as did the other four on the grounds that this 'takes options off the table we might need."  Brody responded that "It paints us in a corner.  Ties our hands."   And until they got the Native districts settled, they wouldn't know how the urban areas would be affected.

Those for doing the Native districts first argued that given the need to be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice that there is no retrogression in Native representation means getting this part right is essential.  So, we need to get those numbers right, then we'll know what we have to take from the outskirts of the urban areas to do that.  Until that's done, it doesn't make sense to do the urban areas because that will mess up the Native district numbers.

Brody, on the other hand, said that we know we have 16 Anchorage districts plus 8,000 left over that could either go with Kenai or with Matsu however that was needed.  Fairbanks also has about 8000 leftover people. (They get this by dividing the Fairbanks area population by 17,755 which gives 5 districts with 8000 left over.)  Matsu has pretty much five districts even (if I understood this right) and Kenai has 3000 extra.  So, Brody was arguing, we know these numbers and can draw these urban areas now. 

Holm said, "I sort of want to agree and disagree."  He seemed to think that the urban areas wouldn't take much time.  [again, my notes are rough here]  "I think we have a pretty good idea of Anchorage folks . . . a few lines need to be redrawn.  Fairbanks the same, a little wrangling.  Bob, if you want to take on Matsu, that's a great area for you to take on." 

He also said at some point that there was really only one area of Fairbanks that it made sense to hold out to add to the rural districts - Ester and Goldstream.  I don't know the makeup of Goldstream, but they called Ester "the People's Republic of Ester" because it's considered so liberal.  So by identifying that as the part of Fairbanks to take out of the Fairbanks districts and put into one of the Native districts, takes a chunk of liberal votes out of the Fairbanks mix.  I don't know Fairbanks well enough, but I'm not sure why that is the only part of Fairbanks to offer to a rural district. 

The logic of doing the Native districts first is strong.  However, thinking about how they got to the draft plan does raise questions.  They did the Native districts first.  And the shaved off Ester and Goldstream and put them into a district that has many roadless villages.  With that already done, the Fairbanks map already had these districts excluded.  Jim Holm proposed a map he'd worked on and the board approved it with very little discussion.  Someone (I think Brody) asked how incumbents were impacted and Holm said he hadn't done an analysis. 

Then the 16 Anchorage areas were done in an two afternoons where it was very hard to follow the cutting and pasting of census blocs and near impossible to tell how incumbents were affected.  A detailed enough map to see that wasn't available until after the plan was approved. 

So Brody does have a point.  If one were to take a cynical view and assumed that the Republicans on the board would try to draw the lines to increase their power (a view that is voiced about redistricting all around the country) then the strategy they are taking could be the best way to do it. 
  • The Native districts are predominantly Democratic - but because of the low population density and because of the Voting Rights Act - they really can't mess with them too much.  
  • Southeast is predominantly Republican and lost a seat because of the population decline there.  So Republicans pretty much have to take a hit there.  Admittedly, they could try to put the Democrats into districts with other incumbents, but it would be difficult to pull off because they are in the most populated area - Juneau.  And the one House member and one Senate member would have to be paired against Republicans any way.  And might beat them. 
  • Matsu is all Republican plus they gained population.  Whatever they do, these will be Republican seats.  So for Holm to tell Brody to try his hand at Matsu wouldn't affect the political balance at all.
  • Fairbanks and Anchorage - the two most urban areas - have the most number of Democrats.  Because of the relatively high population density, there is lots of ability to draw lines to the advantage of one party or another.  
So, if the Native districts and Southeast are done first - as has happened - and most of the time is focused there, then we could find ourselves once again with Anchorage and Fairbanks - with more than half the state population - being drawn with the least amount of transparency.  The least transparency because there is little time left at the end (as was the case with the draft plan) and because the many districts and higher density makes it much harder to track what is happening even in the open.  So, without detailed maps being available at the end of the day for the public to study, the board could pass a plan that gerrymanders Anchorage and Fairbanks before the public even knew what happened. 

Now, this said, I would point out that board member Brody is one of the Republicans on the board.  But his words indicate some discomfort with how the process is going.  On Wednesday he was questioning the way plans were being developed outside of the meetings and then not looked at that carefully in the meetings.  Asking about why there would be four people working individually on Matsu,  [again, this is a very rough quote] "We have to work as a team.  We're doing the public's business, we ought to be able to do it in public."

NOTE:  I'm not saying this is happening or that it will happen.  There are some members of the board that I give the impression of being seriously interested in getting the numbers right and getting districts to fit as best as possible the natural communities out there.  There are others who seem more political.  It seems one role observers can play is to raise questions - even those we don't have the data to answer - so that people can at least be aware of the possibility, investigate it more.   

And speaking of observers - Monday saw Bill Mcallister of Channel 11 there with a camera person.  Lisa Demer of the ADN was there Monday and Tuesday.  ADN photographer Erik Hill was there Wednesday.  I didn't notice any members of the media there Thursday.  Other observers are representatives of the main groups that have presented their own plans - AFFR, the Rights Coalition, AFFER, and the Native Caucus.

Erik Hill with the camera - staffer Taylor Bickford and Board member Bob Brody

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