Friday, October 07, 2011

Comments on Alaska Redistricting Board's Submission to DOJ Voting Section

Alaska is one of 16 states required to submit its redistricting plan to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Voting Section for approval before the plan can be implemented.  I followed the board closely this spring (see the Redistricting Board tab above for a guide to the posts).  So, when the filed their submission, I was interested to see what they wrote.

The DOJ's main interest here, as I understand this, is whether the Board's plan complies with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  I suspect that they will be approved on that level for three key reasons:
  • They managed to have "no retrogression" meaning they came up with the same number of Native districts Alaska had in the previous plan, 
  • Their Voting Rights Act consultant who works closely with the DOJ on VRA issues who guided them and then wrote an opinion saying she found the plan in compliance.
  • No one filed suit over the plan based on VRA issues.

The section entitled "Publicity and Participation" caught my attention.  I'd had issues with the Board over this topic throughout the session.  Their attorney's job is to write a description that puts them in the best light.  I think their attorney did an excellent job.  But I thought it would be useful to fill in the shadows and other features that the attorney left out.

In that section of my comments, I take direct quotes from the submission and then offer my interpretation of what happened.  Here's the first quote:
1.  “. . . the Board conducted the most open redistricting process in Alaska history. The Board took full advantage of technology, social networking tools, and new methods of online outreach to ensure the public had unprecedented access to the redistricting process.” (p. 15)

a.  I heard this claim about the most open process several times.   I have no doubt that it’s true.  The bar was very low.
b.  “took full advantage of technology, social networking tools, new methods of online outreach. . .”  
The board had a website and a Facebook page, but used only the most basic functions.   It was like having an iPhone but only making calls on it. This was not a high priority of the Board chair and the sites were (more so in the first two months) not consistently updated and never gave the public a clear overview of the process.   A lot of data accumulated on the site.  But it was short on information useful to the general public.  There was nothing that succinctly and clearly explained key issues or would educate someone so they could testify usefully.  Their computer expert (Eric Sandberg) was a GIS expert dedicated to the plans and maps, not the website and Facebook pages.   They got their toes wet in new technology, but they were a long way from taking even partial advantage, let alone full advantage.   I’ll elaborate below.

There were 14 such quotes.  I've uploaded my letter to the DOJ at Scribd and it's below where you can read it if you're interested in all the details.

But here are my final thoughts on this from the letter:

Final Thoughts

The Board’s attempts at publicity were minimal.  Their participation efforts were ‘quantity, not quality.”  This is reflected in their report which tells you they logged 60,000 air miles, but offers you no materials that were used to prepare citizens to understand the process at hearings, and no summary or analysis of the feedback they got.   There are some notes - some handwritten, some typed - with data on 23 of the 32 public hearings.  I understand that they were only done for those meetings where only part of the board was present, so the other members could have an idea of what they missed.  This (and the correspondence log) is the only attempt I witnessed to document feedback.  But even these are just notes or the pile of letters, and there is no summary of the feedback or analysis.

The Board’s citizen participation efforts do not reflect the sophisticated techniques that have been developed in this field in the last 40 years.  Some examples of the very rudimentary way this was undertaken:

Determining where to visit was ad hoc.  They began with the places the previous board had been.  Then board members suggested other places and they agreed.  Or communities invited them and they agreed.  No suggestion for a new location at a public meeting was turned down.  Individual board members sometimes offered reasons - PeggyAnn McConnochie said they needed to visit Southeastern communities because they would be losing a seat and so there would be special problems.  But there was never an organized look at possible sites to visit, they just added and added and added new sites.

Notice to communities they were visiting was minimal - the state public notices website, an obscure and hard to use site was the key location.  As things progressed there were regularl, but not completely reliable, notices on the Board’s website.  The board placed no ads in newspapers, sent out no mailers to the public, except to those who subscribed to their email list.  There was attendance at hearings only because interest groups notified their constituents and/or small communities themselves put out ads.  The media did cover local hearings, but no traditional media regularly covered the Board and  when they did, not in depth.

There was no attempt to educate the public on the process.  While a fair amount of data accumulated on the Board’s website over the three months, there was almost nothing that gave citizens a useful overview of the process, the issues, and particular questions for specific districts.  All that work was done by the special interest groups.  I tried to do a little of that on the blog a few times. Here’s my post for the Kotzebue public hearing for example:
And there was no analysis of the feedback they received.  So, when they were doing the maps, a board member might comment about someone who said they should do this or that.  But they had nothing to refer to which might show how many people agreed or not.  But even that would have only been the tiny percent of people who went to the hearings.
In sharp contrast the State Department of Transportation, for example, hires consultants to run their public hearings.  They come prepared with professionally designed visual aids that clearly outline the problems faced, the possible options, what those options would look like and cost, and how the participants can usefully participate.  They post notices in the newspapers and on the radio, send fliers by mail and email to affected citizens, and further information is available on their website for the public to study before the meeting.   They study all the feedback and publish  it using tables and charts. 

Nothing like that happened.  Instead they spread out across the state at great expense in money and time where they were met with generally small groups of people.  Often these were the professionals hired by the communities and Native organizations to represent their interests.

For example, they flew to Unalaska (pop, @3800) and Cold Bay (pop. @ 75).  Airfare to Cold Bay, via Unalaska, from Anchorage is about $900 round trip.  Three people went, so that’s about $2700.  Their notes say that nine people attended the Unalaska meeting and six the Cold Bay meeting. But only three people actually testified at each hearing.  The nine attendees in Unalaska were the Planning Director, seven people representing the City of Unalaska, one person representing himself, and the Legislative Information officer, where the meeting was.  The three people who testified were the planning director and two council members.

That’s $180 per attendee, not counting pay for the board members and staff,  and six hours plus roundtrip to Unalaska and Cold Bay and waiting time.  Or $450 per person testifying. 

There’s no doubt it is beneficial for the Board to see the different parts of the State and hear from people there how redistricing impacts them, and presumably the local attendees were pleased they took the effort, even if they were only in the hearing space and then quickly left town.  

Given the time and money they spent on these 15 people, six of whom testified, they could have sent a DVD with an explanation of the process  and maybe highlighted local issues and then called all the households in Cold Bay for feedack.  Would they have gotten less feedback?  I’m guessing they would have gotten more.  This is far beyond anything the Board considered.

How much of the board’s budget was spent on travel?  How much was spent on getting people to the meetings, on educational materials for the public, and on reviewing and analyzing the feedback?  I’d argue that 95% for the travel and 5% for the rest probably overestimates ‘the rest.’ 

Another contrast is to the huge amount the Board spent on the VRA expert and on the staff attorney who also had expertise in the VRA and the general redistricting process.  They had no one with any specialized expertise in publicity and public participation. 

I’ve gone into considerable detail here to make my point.  The submission’s facts are pretty much accurate, but the missing facts make the story they tell less glowing.  I’ve focused on the Publicity and Participation because it’s the section I know most about.  The submission makes the Board’s actions look very professional, when, in fact, they were ad hoc without any real expertise in this field.   I would suggest that those reviewing the Alaska Redistricting Board’s submission, carefully read between the lines in all the sections.   They did hire a VRA consultant and their staff attorney had experience with these things, plus they had a GIS expert.  But they were the only people who were applying professional technical knowledge and skills to this process.  The rest reflected a lay person’s understanding of modern management and analytic skills and techniques. 


Steven E. Aufrecht, PhD

Note:  While these comments have focused on what I see as shortcomings of the Board, I must also reiterate that the staff were very cooperative and helpful throughout the process.  They worked hard under the pressures of deadlines,  of the grueling travel schedule, dealing with complex systems and voluminous data, and all this with a very short learning curve in an organization that did most of its work in a three month period.  I appreciate their responsiveness to my questions and requests during the process.

Letter to DOJ commenting on Alaska Redistricting Board Submission Sorry this took so long to get up. While the main thrust of my comments are directly relevant to Voting Rights Compliance, since they'd written out their version of the publicity and participation, it seemed like an easy way to address the subject and leave a record for the next Board to consider. Though ten more years of social media technology means that it will be a whole new world next time. But it was a whole new world this time compared to last time, but the Board just barely nodded to the new technology, and never attempted to seriously inform the general public about what was going on. At least that's how I see it.

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