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Constitution first: Redistricting board is told to try again

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Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 12:05 am | Updated: 1:52 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Perhaps Alaskans will yet see what an election district map might look like when freed from the strictures of the federal Voting Rights Act.

That’s because Fairbanks District Court Judge Michael McConahy on Friday told the Alaska Redistricting Board to redraw its plan — again.

McConahy’s decision is not surprising, given the perfunctory nature of the board’s work in the face of an Alaska Supreme Court decision in March.

The high court said the board hadn’t followed the right process. So the board made a quick stab at doing so. McConahy was right to tell the board to try again.

Alaska’s high court said the redistricting board must first draw a plan that complies with the Alaska Constitution. That’s not a new standard. The court outlined the requirement two decades ago in its Hickel vs. Southeast Conference decision.

The constitution requires districts to be contiguous, relatively compact and socio-economically integrated. Once the board draws such boundaries, then it can modify them to accommodate the federal Voting Rights Act, the court said in the Hickel decision. The federal act requires the boundaries be drawn to protect Alaska Native voting strength.

After the high court decision last month, the board did go back and change some boundaries. But it left most of them the same. The result was a plan that, among other things, would have west Fairbanks neighborhoods sharing a state senator with the Aleutian Islands.

That wasn’t good enough, McConahy said Friday.

“The court finds the board did not comply with the directive of the Alaska Supreme Court to draw and provide support for a ‘Hickel’ plan,” the judge wrote.

The application of the Voting Rights Act to Alaska is inappropriate, without question. By an accident of history long since corrected, Alaska got lumped in with the southern states that also must comply with this federal law.

But it makes no sense for our redistricting board to simply start with a plan that it thinks will meet federal demands. Without a constitutional plan to begin, no one can tell if the oddities in the board’s work arise because of the federal demands or whether political influences are behind them. The board can just blame every strange boundary on the feds.

This is not just a political problem. It’s also a legal one when plans end up in court, as they usually do. The Supreme Court explained the problem well: “Because it did not follow the ‘Hickel’ process, the board cannot meaningfully demonstrate that the Proclamation Plan’s Alaska constitutional deficiencies were necessitated by Voting Rights Act compliance, nor can we reliably decide that question.”

So the board must follow the constitution first. It has another chance starting this week. It should apply itself to the task.

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