Let's get constitutional: Redistricting board must finally create a satisfactory plan

Author: John David Ragan
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
June 30, 2013

Community perspective

Here we go again with redistricting. There are 11 new plans proposed for public comment at a hearing on Monday from 12:30 to 4 p.m. at the Legislative Information Office in the Alaska USA building near Home Depot. They are available at akredistricting.org, but are very difficult to read.

The plans include one from attorneys Jason Gazewood and Jason Weiner that originated with plaintiffs George Riley of Ester and Ron Dearborn of Goldstream. They challenged the original Alaska Redistricting Board plan because it put many of us here in Ester and Goldstream into a district bordering the Bering Sea.

The original plan was declared unconstitutional, and the Alaska Supreme Court ordered the board to draw up a plan that meets the requirements of the Alaska Constitution. These requirements are fairly simple. Districts must be contiguous, compact and relatively socio-economically integrated.

Court rulings have implied that this means districts must generally respect existing boundaries, like those of the borough. You could program these simple requirements into a computer with the latest census data and come up with a plan that meets Alaska's constitutional requirements. This is basically what the state of Iowa does, in a redistricting process that goes very smoothly and without significant controversy or problems.

Why then are so many states across the country embroiled in bitter controversy and partisan gridlock over redistricting? (See "The Great Gerrymander of 2012," by Sam Wang, New York Times Sunday Review, Feb. 3, and "Rig the Vote" by Charles M. Blow, New York Times, Jan. 26) It is because modern computers can analyze not only numbers of people but also whether they are Republicans or Democrats, as well as many other factors, then subtly adjust the lines of districts to favor one party or another. You can even download free redistricting apps to do this yourself.

We see the stakes involved in the redistricting process when we look at the most recent election here in Alaska, held under the original, unconstitutional plan. Before redistricting, the Alaska Senate consisted of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, and a bipartisan majority was blocking Gov. Sean Parnell's tax cut for the oil companies. After redistricting, the governor was able to pass the tax cut, which, according to actual Department of Revenue estimates, will give back to the oil companies between $420 million and $755 million tax dollars per year during the next few years. If oil prices go up significantly, it could be as much as $2 billion per year. (See newsminer.com articles by Dermot Cole posted June 19 and June 20.) This is money that could have been spent on roads, education, emergency services or the University of Alaska, or put into the Permanent Fund.

How is it possible that Alaska held an election under an unconstitutional plan? After the Alaska Redistricting Board proclaimed its original plan, the plan was declared unconstitutional by the Alaska courts. However, the board delayed and did not proclaim a new plan in time for the elections of 2012. The Alaska Redistricting Board thus forced a situation in which the Alaska Supreme Court decided that, since it was too late to come up with a new plan, the elections would have to be held under the unconstitutional plan. Three years after the census, the Alaska Redistricting Board has still not produced a constitutional plan.

We should all go to this hearing to demand a straightforward plan that conforms to the Alaska Constitution and respects the boundaries of the borough, the city and natural communities such as fire service areas as much as possible. If the Alaska Redistricting Board cannot do it, then the Supreme Court should appoint impartial "masters," who would draw up such a map under the supervision of the court. We all need to go to this hearing and keep an eye on this board, or your district could end up like Ester, bordering on the Bering Sea.

John David "J.D." Ragan, an Alaska resident since 1975, has a Ph.D. in history, works out of Laborers Union Local 942 and is a firefighter with the Ester Volunteer Fire Department