Monday, May 23, 2011

Overview of the Problems Redistricting Board is Facing Before Voting Rights Act Consultant Arrives Tomorrow

This morning's session was spent looking at more experiments trying to get nine Native districts with sufficient population and Native percentages to be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice.  Rather than recount the details of the short meeting (under 1 hour)  I should just give an overview of what they are grappling with.

Meanwhile they've  begun the afternoon session and you can listen in here. 
[Update 3:25pm - They just ended this afternoon's meeting, but you can use this link to hear the voting rights expert, Lisa Handley, tomorrow at 10am.  This should be one of the more interesting meetings.]

I decided I'd try the online version for the afternoon, so I could get some things done at home and enjoy the beautiful weather.

The key requirement that has dominated the board so far has been RETROGRESSION.  The Voting Rights Act allows no RETROGRESSION. That means, in Alaska's case, that Native Alaskans can not lose the degree of representation they have in the legislature. In translation, that means they must keep the same ability to elect the candidates of their choice.

In the last redistricting there were 9 "Native" districts. However, the population has moved. Southeast lost enough people to lose a whole district. In some cases Natives have moved to urban areas and it's almost impossible to carve the urban areas up in a way that counts those Natives for a Native district.

So, they've been doing a lot of mapping experiments to try to create 9 Native districts given the population shifts. It's been hard. They've run against other requirements - like Senate districts have to be made up of two contiguous House districts.

Double Click to Enlarge Considerably
When I got there this morning, Taylor Bickford was working on a map. This one looks like he’s broken some of the early taboos the board has used from the beginning - like keeping the North Slope Borough pretty much the same.  It hadn’t lost any population after the new census data came out, so it looked like an easy district to leave whole, but there have been two big problems trying to prevent retrogression.  (You can see that here the old North Slope Borough is redrawn to go down along the Canadian border to Valdez, taking on much of the old District 6.  But it looks like it might be smaller than the old District 6.)

HD = House District
VAP = Voting Age Population

The Voting Rights Expert, Lisa Handley, who will be at the board meeting tomorrow (Tuesday), has given percentages needed to have acceptable Native districts.  So they are creating these maps and looking at the numbers.  You can see:

HD 40  has 51.24% Native VAP (voting age population)
HD 39 has 38.43% Native VAP - that is probably enough for a Native 'influence' area while HD 40 should qualify as a Native 'effective' area.  The three below are Senate Districts (SD).  SD A, for instance has 46.55% Native VAP and combines House Districts 36 and 7.  (Not sure why 36 isn't listed as a Native district.  One of these must have enough Native population to make the combined Senate district qualify.)

If you are REALLY paying attention, you'll have noticed this is only eight, not nine Native districts.  They have already created a district in Southeast that they think will count as the ninth. Or maybe they are counting 36.  I don't think 7 - which has Kodiak - has enough Native percentage to qualify. 

This is the computer game they are playing - trying to get these numbers right.  And they also have to get the total population for each district within a few percent of 17,755 people.

The problems they've been having are these:
  1. The Native population is essentially ‘packed’ in a few districts with very high native population (one up in the 80 percent range.)  
  2. The group of Northwest Native districts don't have enough population to get to the 17,750 population needed for a district, thus they need some of the excess population from Fairbanks (@8000 or half a district) or Matsu.
  3. But Fairbanks and Matsu both say they don't want their population spread out beyond their borough.  Matsu might be able to get five districts almost completely in the borough, but Fairbanks, as I mentioned, has 8000 excess people that will have to go in non-Fairbanks district(s).
  • Native groups want to keep ethnic groups - Yupik, Inupiat, etc. - together in their own groups because they have more closely related interests and this is assumed to help preserve cultural heritage.  Though some testified that mixing ethnic groups might be necessary to prevent retrogression.
  • At the various public hearings, different areas have argued that certain neighborhoods or villages or towns should or should not be in the same district and the board is trying to take these into consideration.
All these issues make the board's task even harder.   And there's more. . .
    Left Over Problems
    • This still leaves some problems like putting 8000 excess suburban Fairbanks people into a district that is basically roadless villages.   Clearly that would not create socio-economically cohesive (a state requirement) districts. 
    • And, of course, the Democrats are concerned that the 4-1 Republican board will try to pad the Republican majority in the state House and break the 10-10 tie in the Senate.  While all the board members deny any intention of this, and some seem genuinely neutral in their mapping, this is redistricting.  The assumption is (nationally) that whoever is in charge of redistricting is going to draw lines that advantage their own party's chances of gaining in the next election.  To be fair, Republicans were paired in the Southeast maps we've seen so far.  But there are only two Democrats in the seven house and senate districts there. 
      Most Democrats are in Anchorage and Fairbanks where the population is denser and it's easier to move lines around - because there is enough population to draw all sorts of configurations.  So, if the board spends enough time on the rural districts - as they did for the draft plan they put out April 14 - then they'll have to rush Anchorage and Fairbanks privately, and what they do in public will be hard to follow.  My sense is that the board is divided on this.  Bob Brody proposed doing the urban areas now at the same time they do the Native districts, but was voted down 4-1.  I think the staff would also like to get Anchorage and Fairbanks drafts with details out before the board adopts them.  We'll see.   
    The board recessed at 10:47am and scheduled a 2pm meeting which you can listen to here. (They should be meeting until about 4 or 5 pm Anchorage time today.)
    [Update 3:25pm - They just ended this afternoon's meeting, but you can use this link to hear the voting rights expert, Lisa Handley, tomorrow at 10am.  This should be one of the more interesting meetings.]

    Meanwhile it's the first almost warm sunny day in Anchorage as you can see as I rode home after this morning's session.

    Tuesday  (tomorrow) is a big day for the board.  Voting Rights Act consultant Lisa Handley will be in town to give her sense of how close the board has come to the nine Native districts needed to avoid retrogression.  She'll also give her view on whether any of the privately submitted plans met the goal.  (She's already said she thought so, but board attorney wondered if they had used the right data to calculate their Native VAP - voting age population.)

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