Redistricting is a bloody mess, but adequate

Jeremia Schrock / Sun Star Columnist
August 11, 2011

Redistricting is, first and foremost, a necessary process within a healthy and functional democracy. A shifting of the socio-economic and geographic lines improves the chances for a district’s constituents to be better represented. Better representation means having a representative with a good understanding of your wants and needs, can sympathize with your concerns, and who can speak on your behalf at the state legislature. While it is impossible to elect a representative who will make everyone within a district happy, with accurate redistricting it is possible to ensure that a good deal of those in the district will, at the very least, find their representation adequate. In a state the size of Alaska, sometimes adequate is the best we can hope for.

The process of redistricting is simple in theory, but complex in reality. In theory, once every ten years – every time a census is completed – political districts are redrawn to accommodate changes in a regions socio-economic status as well as shifts in overall population. The goal is to shape districts that are relatively equal in population and that are homogeneous both socially and economically. It is a challenging process, one that requires dedication and a thick-skin.

Like any task worth undertaking (and it most certainly is) it demands much from those who undertake it. It is believed, in fact, that Ron Miller, who directed the board until early March, died only because of the strain the position placed on him. An article in the Anchorage Daily News quoted board attorney Michael White as stating that “you go into your public hearings, and people are screaming and yelling.”  In the same article, a friend of Millers added that “he worked himself to death.” It is fair to say that the redistricting process is so demanding that it is even hazardous to one’s health.

It is well known that the board has been heavily criticized from the beginning. With four republicans and one democrat, it isn’t surprising someone would call foul. However, this unevenness is nothing new. In 2000, the redistricting board put in place by then-Gov. Tony Knowles was dominated by five democrats and no republicans.

While a governor will no doubt choose board members they feel to be qualified, there has most certainly been a trend toward choosing members of ones own political party. While such a precedent is not fair, it is also not wrong nor illegal. One’s political persuasion does not dictate one’s intellectual capacity or one’s powers of reasoning.

Even then, such politicizing shouldn’t matter. The demands placed on the board by both state and federal laws are difficult to maneuver around and very nearly bind the boards (metaphorical) hands. They board has to make sure the new districts have equitable populations, they have to make sure that both rural Alaska and urban Alaska is represented, districts must be contiguous geographically and all districts must be socially and economically equal. In addition, the districts must not discriminate against “a group that has been consistently excluded from the political process” (i.e. Native Alaskans). In short, the board doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.

Does that mean I approve of the boards plan? No. It’s weird and splotchy, like a Rorschach test. And, come on, you want to lump the Goldstream Valley and Ester with communities toward the Bering Sea? You still want to put parts of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in a district with Eagle, Galena, and Holy Cross? Delta Junction should be in the same district as Cordova? It’s absurd and takes on the form of a Lovecraftian horror.

For the College area specifically, little will change. Most university students will still be able to vote for popular incumbent Rep. David Guttenberg (currently District 8D) . The only changes affecting UAF, is that the campus now finds itself no longer actually in Guttenberg’s new district, which would be District 6C.  Under the boards plans, UAF would be part of a restructured District 8D which would include territory from the original Districts 8D and 7D.

The plan is considered so bizarre and unfair that the Fairbanks North Star Borough has moved to sue the board over it’s proposed plan. The City of Petersburg is also joining in on the lawsuit.

Lawsuits aside– and this is very important – the new districts aren’t really all that weird when compared to their predecessors. Go ahead, open the boards two plans and view them with the current district placement. What is really at the issue is members of the Fairbanks North Star Borough will now share a representative with huge swaths of rural Alaska and that a good number of representatives will be switching District numbers. Is it fair? No, not as things stand, but it’s adequate, and in a state the size of Alaska, it’s as good as we’re going to get.

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