On November 6th, 2021, the Alaska Redistricting Board adopted Plan Version 4 as Alaska’s 2022 legislative House Districts. On November 9th, the Board finalized pairings for the state’s 20 Senate districts by pairing two of Alaska’s 40 House districts at a time. The Board also determined which Senate districts would be “truncated”, which sets a schedule for who will have to run for re-election in 2022, 2024, and 2026.
Following the adoption of the maps, five lawsuits were filed over a range of objections to the districts.
Below are overviews of the new districts, which are shaded by how they would have voted in the 2020 presidential election. The maps also list which incumbents were drawn into the same districts, forcing them to run against each-other should they file for the same seat in 2022. Lastly, they show the change in how many districts were won by Democrats/Republicans over three statewide elections, as well as the average district competitiveness of the map as a whole.
– AK Leg Interactive Map –
To navigate the map below, click on a district to reveal the population, demographic makeup, filing status of incumbent legislators and challengers, and how it voted for president in 2020. To view the Senate map and where incumbents live, use the panel icon in the top left corner of the map to access the legend and click/unclick layers. You can even see the old district boundaries and how it voted for State House and Senate. For a direct link to the map, click here.
Alaska’s redistricting process, explained
Redistricting is the process of redrawing boundaries under which voters elect their representatives to serve in office. Most of the news about redistricting occurs at the national level since it also applies to congressional districts. However, since Alaska only has one at-large seat elected by the popular vote of the state, we only draw up legislative seats for the State House and Senate.
Who draws the districts? Alaska’s redistricting process is done by an independent board created by a 1998 referendum passed by the people. The law created a 5-member board with (2) appointed by the governor, (1) by the state Senate majority-leader, (1) by the Speaker of the House, and (1) by the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. State law mandates that commissioners “be chosen without regard to party affiliation.”
Governor Dunleavy’s two appointees were Bethany Marcum of Anchorage, CEO of conservative think-tank Alaska Policy Forum, and Budd Simpson, an attorney and former chair of the Juneau Republicans. Former State Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel (R – Anchorage) named John Binkley, a Fairbanks businessman, former Republican legislator, and 2006 GOP candidate for governor. Binkley became chair of the Redistricting Board during the process. Former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon (I – Dillingham) named Nicole Borromeo of Anchorage, head lawyer and executive vice president for the Alaska Federation of Natives. Former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger named Melanie Bahnke of Nome, President/CEO of Kawerak, Inc.
What rules are the Board bound to?
Article VI, Section 6 of the Alaska Constitution requires the Board to comply with 4 key criteria when redrawing districts:
- Contiguous: Contiguous territory is territory which is bordering or touching. A contiguous district may contain some amount of open sea, especially given Alaska’s rugged landscape. However, this is not without limit. If it were, then any part of coastal Alaska could be considered contiguous with any other part of the Pacific Rim.
- Compact: Compact in the sense used in redistricting means having a small perimeter in relation to the area encompassed. Square or rectangular districts are generally best.
- Socio-Economic Integration: Socio-economic integration means where people live together and work together and earn their living together. It has been described as occurring when a group of people live within a geographic unit, following, if possible, similar economic pursuits. The Alaska Constitution mentions drainage as an example.
- Equality of Population: This requirement protects the “one person, one vote” principle of the equal protection clauses of the United States and Alaska constitutions. To ensure this, we divide Alaska’s total population (733,391) by Alaska’s 40 House districts, meaning each district should be as close to 18,334 persons as possible.
In addition to state-level criteria, the Board is bound to two major constitutional requirements at the federal level:
- Section II of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that a certain number of “majority-minority” districts be drawn in states where racially-polarized voting occurs and where compact, legitimate lines can be achieved. This is to allow a minority group or bloc to elect a candidate of their choice. In Alaska, districts 37-40 — all Native-majority districts in rural Alaska stretching from the Aleutian Islands to the North Slope — have always been the baseline majority-minority districts.
- The “Equal Protection Clause” in the 14th Amendment to the U.S Constitution prevents states from separating its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race. This applies where (1) race was the predominant factor motivating a district where a group of voters are disproportionately packed into it and (2) the districts design cannot withstand “strict scrutiny”. To pass strict scrutiny, the state must prove that its race-based redistricting scheme is “narrowly tailored” to meet a “compelling interest”.
Note: none of the requirements prevent the Board or any other state from engaging in “political gerrymandering”, which is where districts are drawn to benefit or disadvantage a particular political party. In states where redistricting is done by members of the state legislature themselves, the process blatantly entrenches power for whichever party is dominant in government. In Alaska, the Board is technically tasked with drawing districts with a blind eye to partisanship — even though there’s no legal precedence necessarily requiring them to.
How do Census results impact the process of drawing districts? The U.S Census provides crucial population information that allows us to draw accurate, representative districts. Remember, the Board must draw districts with minimal deviation in population and try to keep relevant communities together. According to the 2020 Census, Alaska experienced its slowest population growth in decades. We grew just +3% since 2010, compared +12% in from 2000-2010 and +11% from 1990-2000. Growth occurred disproportionately in the Mat-Su, earning them an additional 4/5th’s of a House District. Meanwhile, major cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks are hemorrhaging people and thus needed to lose a portion of a district each.
Meet the New Maps: Fairness, Partisanship, and Incumbency advantages
A disclaimer: the analysis below is based off data from Harvard’s Voting Science and Election Team, which uses an industry-standard method of allocating absentee ballots to precincts in proportion to population. This data is then processed through Dave’s Redistricting App, a popular online redistricting and analysis tool, which splits precincts and calculates election results under new district lines. Thus, the numbers cited below are estimates. Moreover, we are projecting data about statewide races onto state legislative races, despite the fact that federal races have different voters and respond to a more nationalized political environment. The relationship between local legislative races and the presidential election is not analogous. However, a Trump/Biden district is more often than not going to be represented by a state legislator from the same party. These estimates are the best we have at analyzing election data and drawing analysis from the new maps.
Despite the Board’s assignment to draw fair, non-partisan maps, the process was riddled with accusations of partisanship. I was a vocal critic of early versions presented by the Board, which appeared to overtly and aggressively target the Democrat-led House Majority Coalition. But to evaluate legislative maps for claims of partisan gerrymandering and fairness, what standards are we looking for? In other words, how do we measure partisanship? What exactly is a “fair” map?
In redistricting, most might intuitively classify a “fair” map as one that is ideally as agnostic to the political implications it may have as possible. Unfortunately, anybody can draw a map claiming to be non-partisan and still draw lop-sided districts. Fairness is a commitment to respecting the communities of interest that make up political voting blocks, and drawing maps that reflect state voting trends rather than giving a political party an overreaching advantage.
We can look at two standards for fairness when analyzing at the new maps:
- Competitiveness – do districts attempt to carve out a disadvantage by making more of them easier to win for a particular party?
- Incumbent protection – do districts clearly make an incumbent’s seat easier or harder win, or unfairly pair legislators from one party in the same districts?
A district is competitive if a candidate from either party has a reasonable chance at winning it. Maps that are on average competitive have as many competitive districts as possible in proportion to statewide political trends. For instance, the House map creates an average of 17 solidly Republican districts, 10 solidly Democratic districts (+1 from the old map), and 13 competitive districts (-1 from the current map). Using a probability distribution to evaluate the percentage of competitive districts, the map has a competitiveness average of 29.52% (ideal is around ~75%).
How does this compare to Alaska’s median political trends?
Lets look at the last four statewide races betweeen the old House map and the newly drawn map. Under the old map:
- President 2020: Biden won 19/40 districts in 2020 — or 47.5% of districts, compared to the 42.77 of the vote he won in the election
- Senate 2020: Gross won 15/40 — or 37.5% of districts with 41.2% of the vote
- Governor 2018: Begich won 20/40 — or 50% of districts with 44.4% of the vote
- President 2016: Clinton won 13/40 — or 35.2% of districts with 36.55% of the vote
The average share of districts won between these races for Democrats:Republicans is 42.5% to 57.5%, respectively.
Strictly looking at the change in districts won, Biden and Begich would win 1 fewer districts while Clinton would lose 2. Gross maintains the same numbers of districts won under both the old and new map. Ultimately, the change isn’t very substantial.
Taken as a whole, the composite average of district partisan leans in all four races give Democrats an average of 1 more “safe” seat compared to the old map. However, in doing so, it reduces the number of total competitive seats from 14 to 13.
Additionally, districts can target certain legislators to make races less competitive. Specifically, they can be drawn to distort an incumbent’s electoral chances or even save them from losing re-election next cycle. There are several districts under the new map that have the effect of protecting/targeting legislators, whether on purpose or not. Here are a few examples:
- The most brutal example is Rep. Hopkins (R), who goes from a Biden +1.5% Goldstream-Farmers Loop district and adds the ultra-conservative Eielson military base and Salcha, both south of the community of North Pole. The new HD 34 voted for Trump +26.15%, a 32.34% shift to the right from his old district.
- Rep. Kaufman (R) used to represent a Girdwood-Southside district that voted for Biden by +0.79%, while electing Kaufman by +3.74%. His new district puts him in an O’Malley-Huffman-Hillside district that would have voted Trump +9%, a much safer Republican seat for him to hold on to.
- Rep. Nelson (R) goes from representing a North Muldoon-JBER district that voted for Trump 0.88%, with Nelson following behind closely at +1.9%. The new HD 23 now stretches between both JBER precincts and includes parts of Fairview and Downtown, and voted Biden +3.67% in 2020.
The Board maps have been criticized from the beginning for packing incumbents from the same party or caucus into the same district. For instance, early drafts shamelessly packed Juneau Democrats Andi Story and Sara Hannan into the same district by conspicuously dipping into the census block where Story’s house is located. This became known as the “Story Slice”, a callback to the “Kawasaki Finger” controversy that occurred during the state’s last redistricting process. Republican members of the Board claimed ignorance to knowing where legislators are located in response. The pairing was eventually left out in the end, along with a few other “creative” cutouts:
In the final map, the majority of paired legislators are in Anchorage and mostly affect the razor-thin House Majority Coalition, which consists of 16 Democrats, 2 Republicans, and 3 Independents. The pairings are as follows:
- Anchorage Democrats Josephson and Tuck in HD 13.
- Anchorage Reps Claman (D) and Rasmussen (R) in HD 16. This feels like punishment for Rep. Rasmussen, who is technically a Republican but chose not to join the minority caucus or any other this year. If she ran against Claman, she’d be going from a Trump +1.37% district that she herself won by 25% in 2020 to a much more liberal Biden +15.23% district. There’s a strong chance Rasmussen would lose the seat.
- Anchorage Democrats Fields and Drummond in HD 17. Previous draft maps had these two Dems paired with Claman in the same Downtown district, which drew harsh criticism from the public.
- Reps. McCarty (R – Chugiak) and Merrick (R – Eagle River) in HD 24. Though its technically two Republicans paired together, Merrick is a member of the Majority Coalition. Merrick’s decision to join was controversial among Republicans, especially since she was the tiebreaking vote that elected Republican Majority member Stutes as Speaker of the House, putting Republicans in the minority and Democrats in charge of crucial committee positions. The party responded by censuring her. Both Merrick and McCarty have since filed to run against each other for the open Senate seat L.
- Valley Republicans Eastman and Kurka in HD 27. Though both are Republicans, Rep. Eastman has became a major thorn in the side of the AK GOP while Kurka has been critical of Dunleavy and is now running against him for governor. Eastman is a lifetime member of the extremist right-wing militia group Oath Keepers, and attended the violent storming of the Capitol on January 6th. He is known for sharing white supremacist propaganda, and was removed from his committee positions due to controversial comments made about abortion. With Kurka running for higher office, one could argue this pairing was an effective way at punishing legislators who tarnish the image of the party or challenge their leadership.
What about the Senate?
The Redistricting Board’s original Senate pairings passed in November of 2021 were quite controversial. Rather than being drawn from scratch using Census Blocks like the House districts, Senate districts are created by joining two contiguous House districts together. The law gives far greater leeway to this process at the state level, requiring only that the two House districts paired border each other. That means, for instance, that Senate districts don’t need to past tests like socioeconomic integration.
At the federal level, however, Senate districts are still bound by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as well as Section 2 of the VRA. That’s where things get sticky.
One of the five lawsuits was filed by East Anchorage plaintiffs Yarrow Silvers, George Martinez, and Felisa Wilson over Senate District K. This Senate seat combined South Muldoon and the Eagle River Valley, an obvious racial gerrymander that puts diverse communities from Muldoon (43.65% minority) with the second whitest House district in Anchorage (76.91% white).
In an op-ed in the ADN, Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, a Democrat from Anchorage and decades-long participant of Alaska’s redistricting process, made the case that the Senate District K is not contiguous. Begich points out that South Muldoon and Eagle River do not share schools, utilities, or drainage (the latter of which is explicitly mentioned in the Alaska Constitution §6).
This was especially problematic given the alternatives presented by other Board members. When the Board drew their attention to Anchorage pairings, Marcum and Bahnke put forth their proposals. Bahnke suggested pairing South and North Muldoon together as well as both Eagle River districts under the presumption that they had the greatest shared interests. Marcum then claimed to have four or five proposals at her disposal, all of them insisting on Eagle River’s second district going with S. Muldoon.
Its easy to see why Marcum preferred her pairing over Bahnke’s: it gives Eagle River more representation in the Senate. We know this because Marcum accidentally uttered it herself on public record.
From Matt Buxton’s coverage at Midnight Sun of the Senate pairings discussion during a November 9th meeting:
Beyond what was on the record, there was an obvious and clear partisan advantage to diluting a left-leaning East Anchorage district by marrying it to a heavily Republican cutout of Eagle River. Take a look at the results of the 2020 presidential election under Bahnke and Marcum’s Anchorage pairings side-by-side:
Both maps would be Biden 5-3, but Marcum’s map drags down 2 Biden districts to make them harder to win, while splitting up Eagle River to make the third Trump district much more conservative. These semantic advantages matter when a) control of the House has come down to just a couple seats every year for the past 8 years, and b) Anchorage is getting increasingly liberal, so Republicans don’t want to worry about the seat flipping in a few years.
A closer look at the political makeup of the Eagle River-South Muldoon Senate district shows that the seat would almost certainly have been won by a Republican. Including the Meadow Creek communities, Eagle River alone makes up nearly 28% of the district and has higher voter turnout than South Muldoon. The voters leftover in the Chugach State Park and the Hiland area are enough to wash out voters in South Muldoon, which are less partisan and turn out fewer voters. Eagle River would have decided the fate of this seat for the next 10 years.
Problems with process
It is also problematic how rushed the pairings were. Marcum offered little justification for her Eagle River-South Muldoon pairing except insisting that South Muldoon shared a unique relationship to JBER. Instead of vetting the exchange between Borromeo and Bahnke as they questioned Marcum, Chair Binkley said that he had a “feeling” there was majority consensus for it. Before an actual vote could be taken, Borromeo insisted on an executive session to consult legal about potential VRA violations. After saying it wouldn’t be “necessary”, Binkley agreed and the meeting went dark for an hour and a half.
The next day, Marcum’s pairings in South Anchorage had been shifted around with no discussion by board members. The sneaky switch resulted in the makeup of Anchorage’s Senate seats going from Biden 5-3 to an evenly split 4-4 map:
Marcum’s November 9th Senate pairings
Marcum’s November 10th Senate pairings
Eventually, Binkley and Simpson sided with Marcum while offering zero justification for why they thought the Eagle River-South Muldoon pairing was acceptable and, most importantly, constitutional. What followed was a heated exchange between Borromeo and Binkley transcribed by Buxton and filmed by a meeting attendee:
In the end, the Board voted 3-2 to adopt the final proclamation. Borromeo and Bahkne dissented and asked that their names be left without a signature to indicate their dissent. In response, Chair Binkley suggested their names be wiped from the report completely and that if they wanted to note their dissent, the two Alaska Native Board members “could put together some kind of minority report”. Both Borromeo and Bahnke ended up signing the proclamation.
Last but not least: truncation
In addition to Senate pairings, the Board also decided which districts would be truncated. This simply means that after redistricting, incumbent Senators whose districts substantially changed will need to run again for re-election under their new districts. Truncation creates a staggered schedule for when each Senate seat will need to run in 2022, 2024, or 2026. While less exciting and hardly covered in major press, the process determining this was also mired in accusations of partisanship and a lack of transparency.
At the start of the truncation process on November 9th, Marcum insisted on starting with Seat A and alternating through the alphabet of Senate seats assigning 2 year and 4 year terms. Borromeo and Bahnke suggested flipping a coin to determine if they started with Seat A or Seat T to avoid any appearance of partisanship. Binkley and Simpson refused to answer the motion and pushed through their method. The following truncation chart was released:
As a result of the process, a whopping 19 out of 20 Senators will be up for re-election in 2022. Donny Olson’s District T in the Arctic is the only seat excluded, since its composition hardly changed at all. At first glance, this appears to have an even effect.
Steven Aufrecht went the extra mile by paying extra attention to which legislators were scheduled for extra elections, meaning who has to run for re-election in years they weren’t already scheduled to run. In his post, Aufrecht points out that the truncation schedule noticeably singles out every single moderate Republican who works with Democrats and often don’t align with Governor Dunleavy.
It does this by scheduling them into several two-year terms back-to-back, whereas no Dunleavy-aligned Republicans (Sens. Shower, Hughes, Myers, Holland and Reinbold) don’t face an additional election with the sole exception of Costello/von Imhof’s seat in Anchorage.
This is clearly disadvantageous because is provides more chances during both presidential and midterm years for the AK GOP to try to unseat incumbents who aren’t loyal to the Governor’s agenda. It is also incredibly expensive and time consuming to run a Senate race across such large districts, so the truncated schedule may result in some early retirements.
alaska supreme court strikes down and orders change of one house district
On March 25th 2022, the Alaska Supreme Court struck down the state Senate districts in Anchorage on the basis that they were an unconstitutional political gerrymander.
They also ordered that the town of Cantwell be placed back into the House District containing the Denali Borough, rather than be the sprawling District 36 that runs from Holy Cross to Kaltag, to Arctic Village, around the Fairbanks North Star Borough to the Canadian Border and down to Delta Junction, Tok, and Chicken, and further down to include Mendeltna, Tolsona, Glenallen, Copper Center, Kenny Lake, Chitna and McCarthy. It was a simple fix that did not meaningfully impact the makeup for the broader House District map:
The House Districts are now finished up. The real controversy is still over Senate pairings.
Judge Matthews ruled against the Senate pairings for two few key reasons:
- The Due Process Clause of the Alaska Constitution was violated. Here, the Board violated the Open Meetings Act by discussing crucial last minute changes to the pairings without the public’s ability to digest. In adopting Senate pairings the public had virtually no opportunity to comment on, the Board also violated Article VI, Section 10 of the Alaska Constitution.
- Senate District K (South Muldoon & Eagle River) violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Alaska Constitution. Article 1, Section 1 of the State Constitution provides for “one person, one vote” and “fair and effective representation”, which have the power to reverse redistricting schemes that limit the voting power of specific groups.
Matthews does not spare any words in characterizing the actions of the Board. Perhaps the most revealing summation of the Board’s failure to follow the Constitution is page 7 of the East Anchorage case’s Conclusions of Law:
Board members intentionally misrepresented their considerations of partisan motivations, misrepresented their use of partisan data to select their pairings to even their own Board members, concealed their analysis of the risk of dilution in the districts at issue, misconstrued testimony by East Anchorage community members to serve their impermissible objective, and held secret deliberations and meetings to veil their partisan and discriminatory goals.East Anchorage Findings of Fact (Conclusions of Law Page 7)
Back to the drawing Board
The court ordered the Board to go back and hold public testimony followed by a repairing of Anchorage Senate districts. Many were hoping they’d make a few minor changes — ideally, pairing together Eagle River’s two districts and Muldoon’s two districts — and send it back for quick approval. Instead, the process was much more contentious than expected.
I discuss the debate over the new pairings here, but here are the major highlights:
- Conservative members of the board provided little feedback and engagement with alternative pairings proposed by independent board member Melanie Bahkne, and later the East Anchorage plaintiffs. Both plans paired both Eagle River and Muldoon seats together.
- The conservative majority on the board lined up to support a plan proposed by board member Marcum (who championed the Senate map that got struck down the first time) and Randy Reudrich (disgraced Chairman of the AK Republican Party and responsible for the Senate pairings in 2012 that successfully dismantled the Bipartisan Majority in the Senate). Rather than pairing Eagle River with Eagle River, this map controversially pairs Eagle River Valley with South Anchorage. Countless residents from Hillside and Eagle River showed up to oppose this very same pairing when it was proposed during the Anchorage redistricting process.
- Tons of folks showed up to testify on both sides, including from community members who have testified on the record *against* the ER/South pairing. Susan Fischetti testified 2x against them before coming back to support them once the Supreme Court struck down the first set of pairings. It is clear folks mobilized around Randy’s map, as did both sides to defend their favored maps.
In the end, the Board passed the Marcum-Reudrich map 3-2, with independents Bahkne and Borromeo getting rolled by the Board’s conservative majority. This map nets Republicans an extra Senate seat compared to the plans proposed by Bahnke and the East Anc plantiffs. The map repeats the same harm done to South Muldoon by splitting Eagle River up into two Senate districts. This time, they threw South Anchorage under the bus.
Any day now, we await a response from Judge Matthews. Matthews can do one of three things:
- Accept the new pairings and determine them constitutional, finalizing all districts for the 2022 elections
- Reject the board’s revision and demand they go back to the drawing board — several judges have done this in other states, including Ohio’s Supreme Court which has so far rejected 4 gerrymandered GOP maps (the legislature is one of 34 in the country that draws their own maps).
- Judge Matthews could end up repairing Anchorage’s Senate seats himself — this is common in other states undergoing redistricting, including the 75+ congressional districts this year.
Judgement from Matthews is due any day now. This page will change to reflect the most updated map.