New redistricting plan could see opposition from Southeast

Jenniger Canfield
Juneau Empire
July 16, 2013

New political boundaries were unanimously approved by the Alaska Redistricting Board Sunday. Once the plans and maps are officially filed, individuals and groups will have 30 days to bring forward lawsuits contesting the new districts.

The approval of new redistricting maps and plans is welcome news to board members who've been involved in the process since December 2010, but disappointing for a local Native corporation that feels Southeast Natives have lost representation.

The board is comprised of five members: two are appointed by the governor, one by the Senate President, one by the Speaker of the House and one by the Chief Justice. Juneau real estate agent PeggyAnn McConnochie was appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell in February 2011 after board member Albert Clough resigned to accept employment with the state.

McConnochie said that the plan approved on Sunday is unprecedented considering the diversity of people that gave input.

"I don't know of any time before when you'd get different people coming together from different parts of the state, different political backgrounds and different ideas," McConnochie said. "It's not like times before when the executive director (of the board) would draw up to be approved. The board members and the public were very involved."

The board struggled with its first attempts to get a plan approved. Before last month, the board was required to have the new redistricting plans and maps sanctioned by the Department of Justice. Federal approval was required because Alaska was one of nine states singled out after the passage of Voting Rights Act of 1965. A section added to the law required states with a history of voter discrimination, such as Alaska, to be subject to stricter voter protections.

A temporary map was used in the 2012 elections. That map paired some Fairbanks communities with Western Alaska communities, which lead to a lawsuit by two Fairbanks residents which is still in court. It also took Yakutat out of Southeast and linked it to communities in Cordova, Valdez, Kenai and Kodiak. The most recent map — which is up for final approval from a judge — is largely based on a proposal from the regional Native corporation Calista, which has almost 14,000 shareholders in Western Alaska.

When the Supreme Court decided in June that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional — violating the Tenth Amendment, which guarantees states the right to regulate elections — the redistricting board was given the freedom to move forward with a plan that only had to adhere to guidelines set by the Alaska Constitution. Those guidelines require that districts be contiguous, compact and comprised of socio-economically integrated areas.

McConnochie said that even though the federal oversight was eliminated from the redistricting process, she believes the board protected all voters.

"We were very cognizant to make sure that every person's vote was counted," McConnochie said. "As different interest groups take a look at the new map, the Native interest groups will see that we did the best possible job to maintain their voice in the Legislature."

Southeast regional Native corporation Sealaska disagrees.

"This very much impacts our Southeast communities," said Jaeleen Araujo, vice president and general counsel for Sealaska. "There is no cultural and socio-economic similarities between our rural and urban areas in Southeast."

Two Tlingit lawmakers representing Southeast communities lost their seats in 2012 after proposed district map was allowed to be used for the election. Representative Bill Thomas lost to 23-year-old Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka by 32 votes. In the same election, redistricting pitted incumbent Senators Albert Kookesh and Bert Stedman against each other. Kookesh lost that race after redistricting separated him from most of the smaller communities he'd previously represented.

The Voting Rights Act required Alaska to maintain five Native-influenced House districts and three Senate districts. Alaska's Constitution has no similar requirement. The new map has four such House districts and two Senate districts.

"This whole process has been very disheartening," Araujo said. "We believe very strongly that the viewpoints in our rural and urban communities are very different."

Araujo said that Sealaska is still examining the new redistricting plans and maps.

"We'll do what we can in the next couple of weeks to see if there are any legal arguments to pursue," Araujo said. "If there are, we will definitely follow up on them."