This post is contributed by LWVJ member Margo Waring.
The Alaska Constitution requires that the State redraw the lines of legislative districts every ten years, using census data to ensure that each legislative district has the same number of residents as every other district. Each time that redistricting occurs, there is great concern that minorities could lose their voting power and that “safe” districts have been created for members of one party through gerrymandering – the drawing of district lines in shapes to favor that party. Because Alaska has only one seat in the House of Representatives, all of our redistricting is for state election purposes.
In Alaska, the responsibility for drawing new district lines every decade resides in a board, as it does in twelve other states. In eight of those states, board members are selected equally from majority and minority political parties. In the remaining states, redistricting is in the hands of the legislature, and among those states, two use a bipartisan commission to advise the legislature in drawing the redistricting plan; and five states have a backup non-partisan commission in case the legislature fails to draw up the plan within the allotted time. The result is a new map of districts that has a greater likelihood of being fair and legal since it is the result of bi-partisan efforts. But Alaska’s process raises significant concerns about fairness and gerrymandering.
In 1998 Alaska voters changed the constitution from a governor appointed Redistricting Board to appointments to the Board of two members by the Governor and one each by Senate President, House Speaker, and Chief Justice. The constitution requires that all appointments be politically “non-partisan.” However, appointments by the Governor, Senate President, and House Speaker are generally of the same party as the appointing official. Nothing prevents the entire board being composed of appointees from one party.
In Alaska, redistricting has been contentious, during both Republican and Democratic governorships. Costly and protracted legal challenges to redistricting plans have marked each of Alaska’s redistricting efforts. In 1972, 1992 and 2012, the Alaska Supreme Court had to return draft maps or impose interim redistricting plans either because plans were not yet finished or were found to not comply with the Alaska constitutional standards (equal population size, socio-economic cohesion, respect for governmental boundaries). Many Alaskans saw the goal of the 1998 constitutional amendment as assuring that no one political party monopolized the redistricting process, but the amendment did not achieve that goal. When the governor and legislative leaders are of the same party, party domination seems inevitable and gerrymandering becomes possible, with the result being litigation and the Supreme Court making final decisions. Prolonged disagreement and legal challenges shake the electorate’s faith in the fairness of our redistricting process.
The next federal census will be in 2020. The national League of Women Voters US recently adopted an official position in support of non-partisan, independent redistricting commissions. The position of the League of Women Voters of Alaska is that a change to the Alaska Constitution that provides for an equal number of majority and minority members, along with one non-partisan tie breaker acceptable to all, can bring us closer to fair redistricting in which all Alaskans have confidence.