JUNEAU -- As lawmakers debate bills and budgets, a five-member committee is preparing to redraw Alaska's political map and perhaps the face of the Legislature itself.
By April 1, the release of new population figures from the 2000 Census will send the Alaska Redistricting Board into frenzied action. Once they get the numbers, they'll have 30 days to come up with a draft of a new map of the state's 40 election districts and 60 days after that to take public comment and issue a final plan.
For the 40 House members and 20 senators who represent those districts, the new map may spell a decade of security or a swift political death when they run in a new and hostile district next year. Some lawmakers already plan to retire rather than face the process.
Exactly who prospers and who perishes will depend on the census numbers and the politics of the board. Neither factor is entirely clear yet, although early indicators show that one factor favors urban Republicans and the other favors Democrats.
A constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998 changed the way the board is selected, weakening the governor's power to control the process to the benefit of his own party. After the 1990 Census, the new lines drawn by Gov. Walter Hickel's redistricting board helped Republicans seize control of the Legislature in 1992.
But the amendment -- placed on the ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature -- gave Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles only two picks on the board instead of five.
Knowles appointed Vicki Otte and Julian Mason of Anchorage. GOP leaders in the House and Senate appointed Michael Lessmeier of Juneau and retired Sen. Bert Sharp of Fairbanks.
However, a requirement for regional balance forced Dana Fabe, the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, to make her pick from the northern region of the state, a Democratic stronghold. She chose Leona Okakok of Barrow.
''I think everybody's looking at what's in the best interests of the state,'' said Otte, the chairwoman of the board, when asked whether Knowles had been able to stack the panel for the Democrats.
Otte, the wife of Ron Otte, Knowles' former public safety commissioner, is executive director of the Association of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional Corporation Presidents and CEOs. Mason is a lawyer practicing in Anchorage. Lessmeier is an attorney and insurance industry lobbyist. Okakok manages the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation's Arctic Education Foundation.
The composition of the board aside, the population numbers may not be kind to the Democrats, especially in the state's rural areas. The ideal size for an election district in the new plan will be about 15,700 people, estimates Gordon Har-rison, the board's executive director.
Several rural districts appear well below that threshold, according to 1999 population estimates from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Most notable is Unalaska Democrat Carl Moses' Aleutian Islands district, which lost roughly a third of its population when the Navy closed its base on Adak.
Angoon Democrat Albert Kookesh's district, which includes many of Southeast Alaska's small Alaska Native communities, also appears undersized.
Meanwhile, two districts in the heavily Republican Matanuska-Susitna Borough apparently contain more than 20,000 people apiece, and three districts in Anchorage also appear oversized.
Those two elements -- undersized districts in rural, predominantly Native areas and oversized districts in mainly white areas of the state pose a series of dilemmas for the board: how to balance the principle of one man, one vote against the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires the preservation of minority districts where possible.
''All things being equal, the plan cannot make the Natives worse off than they were before,'' Harrison said. ''On the other hand, you have to respect one man, one vote.''
For example, Kookesh's district could be expanded to include Cordova, but that would reduce its concentration of Natives. Or the map of Southeast could be rewritten to include four districts instead of five, but that would involve combining the district with mostly white areas such as Ketchikan, Sitka and Wrangell.
A third possibility, leaving the Southeast map largely as it is, means voters in a more populous part of the state such as the Mat-Su would likely be underrepresented. The final answers will likely be decided in court after a legal challenge to whatever plan the board adopts.
''I don't know how it's going to come out,'' said Sharp. ''There's going to be a lawsuit no matter how it comes out."
Aside from the knotty problems of making the districts all roughly the same size without violating federal law, the board will almost certainly deal with purely political questions.
n Should all 20 senators stand for re-election next year instead of the normal 10? That would force a sitting senator with aspirations for the governor's mansion to choose one race or the other.
n Which voters get added or subtracted to make districts roughly equal? Anchorage Republican Eldon Mulder's House district appears severely undersized. Adding thousands of voters from one adjacent district could provide an opportunity for a Democratic challenger, while people from another nearby area could solidify his hold on the seat.
n Should incumbents be protected? Theoretically, the board could move lines so two incumbents would be forced to run against one another to remain in the Legislature.
For now, all these questions remain up in the air as board members wait for the numbers and lawmakers await their fates.
''I think this is going to be a lot of fun,'' Mason said as the board wrapped up a meeting last week.
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