As the state with the largest land area and lowest population density in the United States, the redistricting process in Alaska has been described as a “Herculean task” by the Alaska Supreme Court. Except for the 1960 cycle, all subsequent efforts to redistrict the state of Alaska have faced legal challenges, requiring boundary adjustments and on several occasions, a court-constructed plan.
The plan initially developed during the 2000 redistricting cycle, for example, was challenged by nine separate plaintiffs over a wide variety of issues. The process was contentious, with a predominantly Democratic board adopting a plan that pitted at least 20 Republican incumbents against each other. The Alaska Supreme Court ultimately sent the board back to work, having rejected more than half of the districts in the plan.
Heading into the 2010 redistricting cycle, Alaskans familiar with the process were forecasting a perfect storm of demographic shifts, including rural “out-migration” and unprecedented levels of growth in urban areas of the state. The Alaska Native community spearheaded an effort to amend the Alaska Constitution to increase the size of the Legislature from 60 to 66 members in order to prevent districts from being forced to expand their borders in search of new population.
Unfortunately, the ballot measure was ultimately rejected by Alaska voters, and the 2010 Census found that Alaska’s statewide population had grown beyond what experts had predicted. With a statewide population totaling 710,231 and an ideal district size of 17,755, one of the inescapable truths of this redistricting cycle was established: In order to meet the “one person, one vote” requirement of the U.S. Constitution, Alaska for the first time would need to combine into one House district a rural, predominantly Alaska Native population base with an urban, predominantly non-Native population base.
The courts have recognized that “it was not a matter of whether excess population needed to be added to rural Native districts but only a matter of where to access this excess urban population.”
Faced with the inevitable, the board tackled the difficult question of where to make this historic urban/rural combination. The overwhelming majority of plans submitted by third-party groups, on both ends of the political spectrum, combined some portion of the Fairbanks North Star Borough with some collection of rural villages from Western Alaska.
For example, a group known as “Alaskans for Fair Redistricting,” made up primarily of labor unions, Alaska Native organizations and members of the Alaska Democratic Party, wrote the following in support of their proposed HD-39:
“The district includes Inupiat, Athabascan, and Yupik villages. Nome serves as a hub for transportation and major services for the western part of the district. Fairbanks serves as a hub for communities in the eastern and central part of the district.”
After considering multiple options for incorporating each of the major urban areas of the state into a rural district, the board ultimately found the more rural areas of the Fairbanks North Star Borough to be the most logical choice. The court would later agree, writing that “the board acted reasonably when it selected Fairbanks, and specifically Ester/Goldstream, as an area from which to take excess population.”
This was a painstaking exercise, and the board was not surprised when challenges against the proposed HD-38 were filed by two Fairbanks North Star Borough residents supporting plans that merely shifted the urban/rural combination to another area of the state.
After months of legal briefing, testimony and expert reports, the plaintiffs offered a settlement to the board as it was finalizing its Amended Proclamation Plan in April. The plan they proposed was identical to the board’s Amended Proclamation Plan, with one notable exception; they altered the board’s HD-38 to combine Wade Hampton with Chena Ridge, Eielson, Moose Creek and Salcha instead of Ester and Goldstream. The board rejected this “not in my backyard” proposal, just as the Alaska Superior Court did in its Feb. 3 decision.
As a lifelong Alaskan, I have watched our state change dramatically since the days of Govs. Egan, Hickel and Hammond. Alaska’s population has grown from 230,400 people in 1960 to 710,231 people in 2010. Experts are predicting that we will eclipse 800,000 by 2020. In this period of unprecedented growth and demographic transformation, it is important that we come together as Alaskans to find workable solutions to the challenges we face. Unless additional seats are added to the Alaska Legislature by the next redistricting cycle, the ideal district size will exceed 20,000, meaning that more rural districts will be forced into urban areas.
John Torgerson of Kasilof represented a portion of the Kenai Peninsula as a Republican state senator from 1995 to 2002. He currently serves as chairman of the Alaska Redistricting Board.