Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alaska Redistricting for the Masses - Part 1

The Redistricting Board trial going on in Fairbanks now.  I blogged the process last March - June.  The court is going over a lot of arcane details.  I've been tyring to figure out how to blog about it so it makes sense to people.

So I'm going to attempt here to do three blog posts.

First, let me thank the board, and I suspect particularly Taylor Bickford, for making the trial accessible by phone.  I don’t know if other trials have been available that way in Alaska to the public before, but this has been great.  (It’s also taking up a lot of my time!)  Thank you. 

I guess the biggest challenge is to see the whole puzzle instead of getting caught up in the individual pieces, and this trial has had a lot of very detailed technical pieces revolving around how to determine whether districts meet the Voting Rights Act (VRA) standards. 

So, let me start with this post which gives an overview why we have redistricting.

Part 1:  Background of Why Alaska is Redistricting

Census Year

Every ten years the Census is taken to determine how many representatives each state should have in Congress.  Then states have to reallign the districts so that all districts have nearly the same number of people to insure one vote for each person.

States also revise their state legislative districts.  Since Alaska only has one Congressional representative, the whole state is the district, so no redistricting has to be done on that level. 

But this year’s census has shown a loss of population in rural Southeast Alaska and in the far western areas and growth in urban areas of Anchorage, Matsu, Fairbanks, and Kenai.  So the districts set up after the 2000 Census are no longer equal in population and new districts must be drawn.

This was anticipated and rural legislators got a Constitutional Amendment passed in the 2010 legislative session that would have enlarged the legislature by 4 house seats and 2 senate seats. This would have made the current process easier and added new seats in the fastest growing areas rather than taking seats from the rural areas. But it was voted down by the public in November 2010.

Voting Rights Act (VRA)

The 1964 Voting Rights Act, as amended, makes sure that minorities are not discriminated against when it comes to voting.  Particularly in the South, there were obstacles to Black voters participating.  There was intimidation, there were poll taxes, and voting tests.  And districts were drawn to minimize the ability of Black citizens to elect candidates of their choice.  The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed to correct these problems.

States with a history of racial voter discrimination (about 16 in total, mostly in the South) are required to have their redistricting plans precleared by the Department of Justice to make sure they meet VRA requirements.  Alaska is one of those states because of past court cases which found that the State’s districts discriminated againt Alaska Natives. 


The key factor required by the VRA is that the state’s new districts may not be retrogressive.  I understand that, broadly, to mean, the ability of Alaska Natives to elect the candidates of their choice may not be diminished.  Specifically, the Department of Justice checks that Alaska has the same number of “Native Effective” Districts after the 2011 (we didn’t get the 2010 census data until March 13, 2011) redistricting as it had after the 2002 redistricting.  A Native Effective district is one in which Alaska Natives are able to elect the candidate of their choice. 

After the 2002 redistricting Alaska had, what Dr. Lisa Handley, the Board's Voting Rights Act expert,  called three effective Native, two equal opportunity, and one influence state house districts plus three effective state senate districts, for a total of nine Native effective districts.  (Be warned, that part of the current trial is about the nomenclature used for these different districts which has changed a few times since this process began in March and seems to be changing in the courtroom even.) 

Other Key Federal Requirements

In addition to meeting the Voting Rights Act (VRA) requirements, the redistricting plan also had to meet other standards - some federal and some state. 

One person, One vote
A critical federal (and state I believe) requirement is the one person, one vote standard.  That means the districts must have as close as possible the same number of people. After the 2010 census that meant that the 40 Alaska state house districts should ideally have 17,755 people each.  It doesn’t have to be exact, but there can’t be more than 10% deviance from the most to the least populated district.  In urban areas it should be closer to 1% because they are more densely populated and it’s easier to do.

No Gerrymandering
No political or racial gerrymandering is allowed.

The Board’s attorney told me during the process that no redistricting plan since the VRA has been found to be in violation of the political gerrymandering prohibition.  And in court, the plaintiff’s attorney has raised the idea that he - the Board's attorney -  told the Board that they really didn’t need to worry about gerrymandering. 
 You can see the whole list of legal requirements that the Board posted on their website.

State Constitutional Requirements

There are three basic requirements:
  • Compactness - districts should be as small and geographically tight as possible.  Because of Alaska’s large land mass and low population, this is a particular challenge in some rural areas.
  • Contiguity - All parts of a district must be touching.  Water can count here, because we have lots of islands, but it has to make sense.
  • Socioeconomic integrity - Ideally, residents of a district would have as much in common as possible so that a representative can more easily represent all their interests. 
It’s important to note that the Federal Constitution and laws must be met before the State Constitution and laws.  This was an issue for the Board, and is an issue before the court now.  The board’s plan meets the VRA standards and has received preclearance from the US Department of Justice.  But the judge in the current court proceedings has ruled that four districts do NOT meet one or more of the three State Constitutional requirements.  During the process, the Board’s legal counsel, Michael White, informed the board that if there was a conflict, they first had to meet the VRA requirments and the one person one vote requirement. A critical question before the court is whether the Board could have created a plan that met the VRA requirements AND met all the state constitutional requirements.  At this point, the burden is on the defense (the Board) to prove it could not.  Proving a negative is not easy.  How high a standard will the judge hold them to?

Importance of Redistricting

Redistricting will have a major impact on the State of Alaska.  It will determine how many members of each party will get elected to the legislature.  Currently the state senate has ten Republicans and ten Democrats and is run by a bi-partisan coalition of 16.  Four Republicans have not joined the coalition.  The state senate has held up Governor Sean Parnell's bill - HB 110 - that would lower the taxes on oil companies by $2 billion per year.  A change of one Democrat would allow for a Republican majority and a much greater likelihood that the bill would eventually pass.  This is a point the plaintiff's attorney has made in the trial because two Democratic Senators in Fairbanks have been redistricted into one Senate seat, meaning one of them will not return.  Meanwhile, adjacent to that Senate seat is an empty Senate seat.  It would have been very easy to leave the two Democrats in roughly their old districts.  The only other paired incumbents are in Southeast Alaska where they lost one house seat and one Senate seat.  This looks to many like gerrymandering.


  1. 1 correction : 6 republicans are part of the bipartisan coalition this legislature. Thanks for all you have done in reporting on the trial and process.

    1. Thanks, Anon. Smiling here. I thought that's what I said in different words. Read it again and let me know how I should fix it if you still think it's wrong.

    2. My misreading, you said it in other words. Thanks again for your coverage, I see nothing of substance in other media outlets.....


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.