Population shifts, growth impact redistricting
As the state with the largest land area and lowest population density in the United States, the redistricting process in Alaska has been described as a “Herculean task” by the Alaska Supreme Court. With the exception of the 1960 cycle, all efforts to redistrict the state of Alaska have faced legal challenges, requiring boundary adjustments and on several occasions, a court-constructed plan.
The plan initially developed during the 2000 redistricting cycle, for example, was challenged by nine separate plaintiffs over a wide variety of issues. The process was contentious, with a predominantly Democratic board adopting a plan that pitted at least 20 Republican incumbents against each other. The Alaska Supreme Court ultimately sent the board back to work, having rejected more than half of the districts in the plan.
Heading into the 2010 redistricting cycle, Alaskans familiar with the process were forecasting a perfect storm of demographic shifts, including rural “out-migration” and unprecedented levels of growth in urban areas of the state. There was also a very real concern that given the state’s changing population distribution, it would be impossible to maintain the same level of Alaska Native voting strength that had existed in the previous plan.
As a result, the Alaska Native community spearheaded an effort to amend the Alaska Constitution to increase the size of the legislature from 60 to 66 members in order prevent districts from being forced to expand their borders in search of new population.
Speaking in support of the constitutional amendment, Representative Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham made the following observation:
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was carefully crafted to ensure that as populations grow and shift our citizens still have the most accessible and responsive representation possible. But the Alaska Constitution requires districts to be drawn so that they are as socio-economically integrated, compact and contiguous as possible. As the state’s population changes while our Legislature remains the same, meeting these goals has become all but impossible. The newly outlined districts threaten to become so large and cover such vastly differing communities that it will be impossible for their representatives and senator to give them the focus and attention they deserve.”
Unfortunately, the measure to amend the constitution was ultimately rejected by at the ballot box, and the 2010 Census found that Alaska’s statewide population had grown beyond what experts had predicted. With a statewide population totaling 710,231 and an ideal district size of 17,755, one of the inescapable truths of this redistricting cycle was established: In order to meet the “one person, one vote” requirement of the U.S. Constitution, Alaska for the first time would need to combine into one house district a rural, predominantly Alaska Native population base with an urban, predominantly non-Native population base.
The courts have recognized that “it was not a matter of whether excess population needed to be added to rural Native districts but only a matter of where to access this excess urban population.”
Faced with the inevitable, the board tackled the difficult question of where to make this historic urban/rural combination. The overwhelming majority of plans submitted by third-party groups, on both ends of the political spectrum, combined some portion of the Fairbanks North Star Borough with some collection of rural villages from Western Alaska.
For example, a group known as “Alaskans for Fair Redistricting,” made up primarily of labor unions, Alaska Native organizations and members of the Alaska Democratic Party, wrote the following in support of their proposed HD-39:
“The district includes Inupiat, Athabascan and Yupik villages. Nome serves as a hub for transportation and major services for the western part of the district. Fairbanks serves as a hub for communities in the eastern and central part of the district.”
After considering multiple options for incorporating each of the major urban areas of the state into a rural district, the board ultimately found the more rural areas of the Fairbanks North Star Borough to be the most logical choice. The court would later agree, writing that “the board acted reasonably when it selected Fairbanks, and specifically Ester/Goldstream, as an area from which to take excess population.”
In drawing our plans for rural Alaska, the board took its responsibility to the Alaska Native community very seriously. We hired world renowned Voting Rights Act expert Dr. Lisa Handley to serve as a consultant to the Board and guide us through the adoption of a non-retrogressive plan. Dr. Handley had worked for the previous Board during the 2000 cycle in Alaska and has a long track record of protecting minority voting rights through redistricting.
Although avoiding retrogression was an incredibly difficult exercise that many did not expect would be possible, the board’s initially adopted plan successfully obtained preclearance on Oct. 11, 2011 under Section 5 of the Federal Voting Rights Act. As one of the nine states covered under Section 5, we are required to submit redistricting plans for preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that they are free from discriminatory purpose and will not result in retrogression of Alaska Native voting strength.
Our amended plan, adopted in April of this year, has been submitted back to DOJ for approval and is substantially similar to the original plan. The changes made in rural Alaska came as a result of the need to reunite the Aleutian Chain into a single house district.
Along with the advice of Dr. Handley, the collective wisdom of our board members was invaluable over the course of the process. The insight of Board member Marie Greene of Kotzebue, a lifelong resident of rural Alaska and current president/CEO of NANA Corporation, was particularly important as the board set out to draw a plan that would avoid retrogression while representing the socio-economic interests of the Alaska Native community to the greatest extent possible.
As a lifelong Alaskan, I have watched our state change dramatically since the days of Governors Egan, Hickel and Hammond. Alaska’s population has grown from 230,400 people in 1960 to 710,231 people in 2010. Experts are predicting that we will eclipse 800,000 by 2020. In this period of unprecedented growth and demographic transformation, it is important that we come together as Alaskans to find workable solutions to the challenges we face. Unless additional seats are added to the Alaska Legislature by the next redistricting cycle, the ideal district size will exceed 20,000, meaning that more rural districts will be forced into urban areas.
John Torgerson of Kasilof represented a portion of the Kenai Peninsula as a Republican state senator from 1995 to 2002. He currently serves as chairman of the Alaska Redistricting Board.