Alaska redistricting trial comes to a close

Jeff Richardson
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
January 18, 2012

FAIRBANKS — A week-long trial challenging the proposed redrawing of Alaska’s election districts came to a close Tuesday, with rival attorneys offering wildly different perspectives of the redistricting board’s work.

Mike Walleri, who represented plaintiffs challenging the proposal, blasted the effort during his closing argument as a work of “blatant partisanship.” Michael White, defending the Alaska Redistricting Board, said the new map successfully juggles complex issues of geography, population and federal law into a workable solution.

It’ll be up to Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy to evaluate a week’s worth of evidence leading up to those arguments and to decide whether to accept or reject the map.

Plaintiffs George Riley and Ron Dearborn, who live in a significantly redrawn West Fairbanks district, are fighting to have parts of the map thrown out. They’re joined by the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

McConahy said he plans to rule in the case by Feb. 6. A final decision in the case will likely be made by the Alaska Supreme Court, he has said.

Much of the controversy surrounding the new map is based on changes to Fairbanks districts. The new House District 38 includes the Ester and Goldstream areas in a far-flung district that pairs parts of the borough with Western Alaska coastal communities. East and West Fairbanks districts no longer are joined in the same Senate district, which means two incumbent Democrats, Joe Paskvan and Joe Thomas, would reside in the same district.

McConahy ruled in December that parts of the proposed map violate the Alaska Constitution because they aren’t compact enough. That requirement is trumped, however, by the federal Voting Rights Act, which dictates that districts be drawn in a way that doesn’t dilute minority voting power.

White said that federal requirement guided much of the board’s work. Preserving Alaska Native representation was behind the boundaries for House District 38, for example, which he said required pairing rural and urban areas.

“These were tough decisions the board had to make,” White said.

But Walleri claimed the board’s decisions were rooted in politics, saying the effort to skew boundaries along political lines was more brazen than during any redistricting effort in Alaska’s history. Walleri argued the Voting Rights Act was used as a mechanism to achieve those goals.

“This was a Republican-dominated process,” he said. “The partisanship was out there for everyone to see.”

Walleri said that partisanship was on display when Lisa Handley, the board’s Voting Rights Act adviser, recommended the board consolidate Democratic-leaning areas into predominantly Native districts. The board did so, he said, overtly drawing a district so its residents skew toward a specific political party.

Walleri said much of the Fairbanks-area redistricting map should be reconsidered, including six of the seven local House seats and all four Senate seats.

White said the plaintiffs simply don’t like the way it affects local boundaries. In a state with a sparse population, huge geographic areas and sizable Alaska Native population, he said finding the right map is a challenge.

“Their case is partisan in nature because they don’t like the way it treated Fairbanks,” he said.