Redistricting reveals it's time for Alaskans to weigh other options

-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - June 24

Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Incumbents are howling about the effects of the new redistricting schemes on their home seats. Their distress is understandable; most members of the current Legislature face the unenviable prospect of running against fellow incumbents or retiring.

But redistricting isn't about the career prospects of individual office holders.

Obtaining fair representation for voters residing in neighboring communities that share economic and cultural ties is the objective of this constitutionally mandated, once-a-decade adjustment to the state's legislative district maps. To the extent the new plan satisfies that goal, we welcome it. To the extent the new maps issued by the Alaska Redis-tricting Board fail to meet that standard, every Alaskan, regardless of party affiliation, should demand corrections from our state courts.

It comes as no surprise that the map approved on ... June 18 has already triggered one lawsuit. The city of Valdez quite naturally objects to its inclusion in a district with South Anchorage. It is ludicrous to combine portions of Alaska's largest city with a small town overlooking Prince William Sound, located at the foot of the Richardson Highway, some hundreds of miles east of Anchorage, and strongly tied to other Interior pipeline communities through the presence of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company's marine shipping terminal.

This is the sort of outcome that begs court review.

The same applies to the board's creation of an amorphous highways district, bringing together Interior communities such as Salcha and Denali Park with Southcentral's Sutton and outlying areas of Palmer.

As for the senate district merging Yukon River villages with the far tip of the Panhandle, how on earth is one state lawmaker to adequately represent such a broad and diverse universe of constituents?

These are all symptoms of a larger problem: Growing urban communities command greater and greater shares of legislative seats, leaving thinly populated rural districts stretched beyond manageable size. Redistricting officials charged with drawing borders that achieve set population goals have little choice but to throw together communities with little or no common interests beyond a need for population numbers.

We have reached the point where attempts to carve Alaska into 40 House districts encompassing approximately equal pools of voters are bound to leave some communities bitterly disappointed.

This is the issue Alaska needs to address in coming years, perhaps through a commission weighing all conceivable options for reform.

One solution may be to combine Alaska's House and Senate into a single body, providing for the creation of 60 rather than 40 seats in a new unicameral Legislature. This would have the effect of reducing district target populations by roughly one-third.

Another approach might be to preserve the Alaska Legislature's two-chamber system, but with greatly expanded membership. A House made up of, say, 80 or 120 members would provide redistricting boards with more flexibility to divide up the state in smaller, more cohesive districts.

Expenses associated with operating a larger Legislature could be offset by an accompanying switch from the annual 120-day session to convening in Juneau for regular sessions every other year.

That last option would entail not only constitutional amendments, but the election of a Legislature capable and willing to plan ahead, a revolutionary concept indeed.

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