Just as the deadline for filing for statewide office drew to a close on Friday, there is yet another push to challenge the latest redistricting plan for the 2012 elections, one that is now under review by the U.S. Justice Department.
A group called Alaskans for Fair Redistricting says it’s met with Justice Department officials in Washington D.C., along with representatives from several Alaska Native groups, in an attempt to change a plan that it contends is illegal.
“We’re in unchartered territory,” says Vince Beltrami, who is co-chair of AFFR as well as president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, a labor organization. “The state has never been in a position where it would have an illegal map.”
The map in question is one that the Alaska Supreme Court has approved, and one that the Justice Department has sixty days to review, a process that began last Friday, May 25th.
One of the changes AFFR has asked the Justice Department to make involves House District 38, which extends from the outskirts of Fairbanks all the way west to the Bering Sea.
“I believe this is going to create an imbalance that will hurt Rural Alaska,” said Vicki Otte, a member of AFFR, as well as chairman of the Alaska Redistricting board in 2001.
Otte and Beltrami say the new district includes Goldstream and Ester, two communities outside Fairbanks, which would carry too much weight in a district that is otherwise made up of rural and Native voters.
Otte says voters in those two communities have advantages many other voters in the district don’t have – such as regular mail service and access to more television, radio and internet service.
“It takes up to thirty days sometimes for people to get their prescriptions in the mail from pharmacists,” says Otte of communities which no longer have regular mail service. “Because the mail system is so unreliable, absentee voting is out of the picture.”
She also says, in the western part of the district, which has Yup’ik speaking communities, there are big language and cultural barriers that would give voters near Fairbanks an edge in getting candidates from their region elected and make it impossible for a Native to be elected.
Alaskans for Fair Redistricting has asked the Justice Department to switch out voters from Eielson Air Force Base with those in Goldstream and Ester, because voter turnout on the base is poor compared to Goldstream and Ester, which have more “super” voters.
AFFR also wants the Justice Department to look how the redistricting plan affects the Senate’s bipartisan majority coalition, which it says has protected Rural Alaska and its Native population.
“I believe the redistricting process is gone,” said Beltrami. “The sole goal of the board has been to destroy that coalition.”
“No one is ever satisfied. You have a map that is built with many compromises,” said Ruedrich. “The state has 61,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. To assume a ten-ten split is equitable is to not pay attention to the will of the voters.”
The director of the Redistricting Board, Taylor Bickford, says he’s headed to Washington D.C. for a meeting Monday with Justice Department officials that will include Dr. Lisa Handley, a voting rights expert, who has analyzed arguments made by AFFR and other groups, and has endorsed the board’s latest plan.
“We’re confident in our plan,” says Michael White, attorney for the Redistricting Board. “She’s one of the foremost voting rights experts in the country.”
Alaskans for Fair Redistricting says Handley’s analysis is flawed and will continue to make its case to the Justice Department.
Every ten years after a Census, redrawing voting districts has historically been a messy process in Alaska. As the state’s urban areas grow, it gets more complicated, due of the loss of rural Native districts.
When the Redistricting Board redraws the boundaries, it must balance state constitutional requirements with the Federal Voting Rights Act, which outlaws discriminatory voting practices.
Since population changes recorded in the last Census, each district must now be made up of about 17,500 people – and to do that, the Redistricting Board has carved out districts by combining rural and urban populations.
The Board will ask the Justice Department for expedited clearance of the current plan to avoid any delays in the August primary.
The Alaska Supreme Court has yet to approve a plan for the next ten years, so the current districts may only be for the 2012 election cycle.