New plan returns many lawmakers to familiar territory

Freed of the federal requirement to protect rural Alaska legislative districts, the Alaska Redistricting Board has proposed a new and redrawn set of boundaries that is now back before a state judge for review.

Several changes were made from an interim map used in the 2012 elections, although some districts that had been substantially altered for 2012 were returned to configurations close to those previously existing.

The state Supreme Court allowed the 2012 district boundaries to be used, although judges said it did not meet constitutional requirements requiring districts to be reasonably compact and socially and economically integrated.

The rule requiring federal approval of the voting district configuration, to preserve districts heavily populated by Alaska Native voters, was struck down recently by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Notable changes in the new map include a return to a west Fairbanks district that was cut from the Interior city and lumped in with a vast Yukon valley rural area for 2012. With west Fairbanks restored as an urban district, the board replaced it with an area around Eielson Air Force Base area, east of Fairbanks, with its military population. That was to keep the Yukon district at its required population of voters.

The Fairbanks changes have some consequences for state Senate districts in the Interior. The return of the west Fairbanks House district to the city puts it back into a Fairbanks Senate district now represented by Sen. Pete Kelly, a Republican, and out of Democratic Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman’s vast Yukon and southwest Alaska senate district.

Jason Gazewood, an attorney for the Fairbanks-area residents who sued over the board’s original plan, said the plaintiffs still have some misgivings with the plan but are still reviewing it.

Critics of the Republican-appointed redistricting board said the removal of west Fairbanks, which leans Democratic in voting preferences, was done to alter the Senate district to favor a Republican candidate. The victory of Kelly over Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Paskvan in the 2012 elections was crucial in allowing Republicans to capture a clear majority in the state Senate.

Previously the Senate had a 10-10 Republican-Democrat split and a coalition leadership.

With the new plan Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop’s district has also been changed so that a wide area of the upper and middle Yukon of Interior Alaska and areas southwest of Fairbanks to Denali National Park are in his district.

Valdez and the Richardson Highway, formerly in Bishop’s Senate district, were given to Sen. Mike Dunleavy, whose district is now centered in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

In western Alaska, several House districts were altered but generally restored to 2010 configurations. One was House District 38, now represented by Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, which is now again a compact lower Kuskokwim region district. Another was House District 37, represented by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, whose district now again includes the Aleutians. Previously the Aleutians had been lumped into Herron’s district.

The newly adopted map also makes changes in Southeast Alaska, removing Petersburg from the Senate district that includes Juneau.

The prior pairing had raised concerns for Petersburg, but borough manager Steve Giesbrecht said Monday he doesn’t expect the assembly to have any objections to the new configuration.

The new configurations would put incumbent Sens. Fred Dyson and Anna Fairclough of Eagle River and Reps. Doug Isaacson and Tammie Wilson of North Pole in the same districts, said Randy Ruedrich, a former state GOP chair who has closely followed the redistricting process. All four are Republicans.

One of the challenges that board members said they’d faced in drafting prior iterations was balancing state constitutional requirements with those of the federal Voting Rights Act. But the board was essentially freed of a requirement that they have the Justice Department sign off on whatever map they come up with by a U.S. Supreme Court decision last month. The court found unconstitutional a provision of the federal act that determines which states must get Justice Department approval for election changes. That effectively did away with the mandate, until Congress comes up with a new formula.

Board attorney Michael White said the board believes it has devised a map that meets state constitutional requirements.

He said the board has heard some grumbling from various parties that this isn’t exactly what they may have wanted “so that tells me we reached a good compromise.”

A spokesman for the state Democratic party said the Democrats were still reviewing the plan.

Ruedrich, with the group Alaskans For Fair and Equitable Redistricting, which submitted a map of its own for consideration, called the map the board camp up “fair and equitable.”

Associated Press reporter Becky Bohrer contributed to this report. Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected].

07/18/2013 - 6:52am