For several months the sharpest political knives in Alaska have been flashing as the state Reapportionment Board went about its decennial revision of state election districts. The board released its plan Monday -- which means only that the reapportionment struggle now moves to its next phase.
For the uninitiated, reapportionment is the holy grail of Alaska politics, the once-every-10-years struggle in which power is rearranged in response to population shifts around the state. The stakes are naked power -- who'll have the easiest time getting elected to the Alaska Legislature. Even within the proper guidelines of the state Constitution and federal law, there's enough leeway for the Reapportionment Board to change the electoral map considerably.
The Reapportionment Board has just produced its proposal and we're on to the rhetorical attack phase -- which, in the natural order of things, comes just before the go-to-court phase. Just on schedule, Republicans who couldn't control this year's proposal as they did the last one cried foul as loudly and indignantly as they could. (The record will show that the Republicans did NOT complain when the last reapportionment effort went their way in the 1990s, ultimately producing a veto-proof GOP House of Representatives. But that's a whole separate story.)
There are still several rituals ahead in the current cycle. The next 30 days will be the time for filing suit against the plan. Just now it appears Valdez, Glennallen, Craig and perhaps Anchorage have enough unhappy elements to be considering a challenge.
(Anchorage will want to be careful, though. The Reapportionment Board's proposal gives Anchorage 16 seats and majority control over a 17th, since census figures would indicate 16.6 seats based on our population. Gaining the extra population to fill out that 17th seat is why the board made a controversial reach across Prince William Sound to include Valdez in a South Anchorage district. That's probably not so good for Valdez, but it's very good for Anchorage.)
Anyway, after the lawsuit-filing phase comes the trial (or trials), probably on an expedited basis. Very likely the challenges will go all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, which would hear arguments around the turn of the year and issue a decision as soon as possible. Then we'll either hold elections under the new plan or the Reapportionment Board will make up another one.
With luck, all the phases of the process will run their course in time for an orderly election in the fall of 2002. Whether that's possible is anyone's guess -- but last time Alaska did this the whole thing wasn't settled until some three years after the census.
At the end of the day, legal and constitutional guidelines will set the outer limits and the Reapportionment Board will exercise its discretion. Then the game will shift, as it should, to the citizens and candidates who'll define the issues, debate their visions, organize their campaigns, and fight for the hearts and minds of Alaska voters. No matter where they draw the district lines, it's the ballot box that ultimately counts.
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