The Alaska Supreme Court has thrown out the redistricting plan that the state used for this year’s elections, and ordered the Redistricting Board to draft a new plan in time for the state’s 2014 election.
Southeast Alaska likely will be affected by the court’s decision, which was announced Friday morning. Petersburg filed one of the early challenges to the redrawn boundaries, which placed that rural community in the same district as Juneau, the state capital and Southeast’s largest city.
Petersburg’s manager was out of town Friday, but City Clerk Kathy O’Rear says the community is pleased with the court’s decision.
“Our argument with the board … was that we should be paired or put in with communities more our size, more to our lifestyles, such as Sitka, Wrangell. The smaller communities,” she said.
Redistricting also meant that Ketchikan and Wrangell, formerly in House Districts 1 and 2, were combined with some Prince of Wales Island communities to become House District 33.
Metlakatla and other Prince of Wales communities became House District 34, along with Sitka and Haines.
On the Senate side, most of Southeast became District Q. Senator Bert Stedman won re-election to that new district. He hadn’t read the court opinion yet on Friday, but says he has some questions about what’s next. For example: What’s going to happen to senators like himself, who just won four-year seats?
Stedman says the Petersburg issue will be a big one for the Board to decide in the next go-round. He gave some insight into why that community was paired with Juneau, rather than Haines.
“Clearly on the redistricting, Haines was put in with Sitka to protect Bill Thomas, in my opinion, so he wouldn’t have to run against Kathy Munoz in the northern side of Juneau,” he said.
Thomas, a Haines Republican, ended up losing narrowly to Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Stedman believes that politics guided more of the Board’s decisions for the current map.
“It was unfortunate that during this ten-year redistricting time frame that the oil tax debate was front and center in Juneau, and I’m not sure that issue didn’t have significant impacts on how redistricting was implemented,” he said.
A call seeking comment from the Alaska Redistricting Board was not returned by deadline.
The state’s Constitution requires redistricting every 10 years, based on data collected through the U.S. Census Bureau. The plan must be approved by the federal government to make sure any boundary changes don’t diminish the ability of minorities to have an effective voice in the voting process.
Because of that requirement, the Board focused on creating districts that maintained effective Alaska Native voting rights. The first plan, adopted in June of 2011, was cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice.
It wasn’t received well at home, though. Lawsuits were filed by the cities of Fairbanks and Petersburg, and by several citizens. Most of the claims were dropped or denied. However, the superior court ruled that some of the new districts QUOTE “unnecessarily deviated from the requirements of the Alaska Constitution.” ENDQUOTE
The court ordered the Redistricting Board to redraw the boundaries, keeping the constitution in mind first, and then test it against the federal Voting Rights Act. That process had been established in previous case law.
The Board developed a new plan, maintaining all the unchallenged districts and redrawing those that had been disputed. Following a review period, the board adopted it in April, and submitted it to the superior court for approval. The court rejected that plan, too, ruling that it didn’t follow the process.
The Board asked the Supreme Court to review that decision, and, because of the short time frame leading to the August primary election, also asked the court to approve the new plan on an interim basis. The court agreed, and that plan was used for this year’s state elections.
In Friday’s decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the superior court, ruling that the Board should have thrown out its old plan completely and started fresh, rather than maintaining the unchallenged districts. That’s because the original plan that created those districts was drawn with the Voting Rights Act in mind, rather than the Alaska Constitution.
Justice Dana Fabe and Senior Justice Warren Matthews dissented. Fabe argues that the Board’s approach was reasonable and practical. She also writes that the high court’s ruling sends the redistricting process “back to ground zero.”
In the dissent, Fabe writes that “Much new litigation, by new parties as well as those already before us, will result. All the disruptions of redistricting that are necessarily endured every ten years will be repeated in the next two.”