Testimony about new proposed boundaries for Alaska’s 40 legislative districts included accusations of gerrymandering and partisan politics and claims that preliminary maps put out by the Alaska Redistricting Board would create strange bedfellows — and it’s just the beginning.
The board is still deciding which maps to present to the public on a tour of up to 30 communities in the run-up to a Nov. 10 deadline. Friday’s meeting was held in Anchorage and steamed online with testimony phoned in from around the state. The board continues on Monday when they go over maps provided by government officials, corporations and private organizations and decide which ones, if any, to put forward for public review.
Several testifiers said preliminary maps proposed by the redistricting board unfairly favor the GOP.
Forrest McDonald, of Anchorage, told the redistricting board that they have a hard job and not everyone will be happy. He was critical of a proposal to break up what he described as a progressive Anchorage district and redistribute it among three new districts.
“That looks a little bit too partisan,” he said.
The Republican-leaning board was presented with proposed maps from the Alaska Democratic Party; Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, whose members include Randy Ruedrich, former chairman of the Alaska Republican Party; an official from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; a coalition of Alaska Native organizations and others.
In general, how the Alaska population has changed is that urban areas, including Fairbanks, lost residents while the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and portions of rural Alaska gained people, according to the 2020 Census.
The Fairbanks area lost about 1,600 people since 2010 and the board’s preliminary maps allocate five House seats within borough boundaries, down from the current six seats that are within or touch the borough.
The new legislative districts are being created with a population target of 18,335 residents per House district. The proposed districts for Fairbanks are slightly higher at more than 19,000 people.
The redistricting board, led by businessman and former Alaska legislator John Binkley, of Fairbanks, is redrawing the legislative boundaries per the Alaska Constitution and the 2020 Census.
The work, which happens every 10 years, can be contentious and has resulted in legal challenges in years past.
The state constitution holds that districts should be “contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.”
Schools, industry, medical facilities, lifestyle, cultural practices and other aspects of life along with where people live are considered when drawing up legislative districts.
A new district pairing a portion of Anchorage with the Mat-Su borough drew criticism from commenters. The new boundaries proposed for the Fairbanks area districts also drew some complaints.
David Guttenberg, a former Democratic state legislator and current candidate for Borough Assembly, called attention to a proposed district that would combine Chena Ridge with Eielson Air Force Base and Salcha. The areas are joined by the Tanana Flats.
Guttenberg said a person would need to drive through three other districts to get from one end of this proposed district to the other.
“Clearly, there is a problem here,” he said.
Libby Dalton, of Fairbanks, said she likes the direction of the redistricting board. It’s fair to expect less representation in places where the population has declined and more representation in places where the population has grown, she said.
“I completely understand that. Any reasonable person would,” she said.
In the Southeast, some testifiers wondered about a district they said appears to be drawn around Juneau Rep. Andi Story’s house.
The five-person redistricting board has members appointed by the governor, speaker of the house, senate president and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court.
Binkley, the chairman, said no data on political party membership was used in the creation of the preliminary maps.
“This is the beginning of a conversation,” he said. “The public will have ample opportunity to give as much and all feedback that they would like to.”