Alaska Redistricting Board votes to gerrymander Anchorage’s Senate Districts — again

The conservative majority on the Alaska Redistricting Board voted to pair Eagle River and Southside in the Senate, effectively repeating the same gerrymander the state Supreme Court had ordered them to rectify.

On Wednesday, April 13th, the Alaska Redistricting Board voted 3-2 on Option 3B, which revises the board’s previous Senate pairings after they were struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court. It was a vote that pitted the conservative majority members of the board (Chair Binkley, Marcum, and Simpson) against two independents (Borromeo and Bahnke).

After the board finished drawing House Districts in November, they rushed through a series of pairings that would have stuck the Eagle River Valley with South Muldoon. That decision was ultimately determined to be a political gerrymander that benefitted Eagle River by giving them two Senate seats instead of one.

The new map addresses the court decision by pairing North and South Muldoon’s districts back together, but still splits up Eagle River into two Senate seats by pairing the ER Valley with South Anchorage instead.

But before this map was passed, the Board deliberated between two final plans: Options 2 and 3B. It is important to quickly review this debate to understand how these pairings came to be, and the politics that were played in order to make it happen.

The politics behind Options 2 and 3B

A quick look at the partisan breakdown of these maps shows why the conservative majority on the board were willing to entertain the minimal testimony and reasoning in favor of pairing Eagle River and Southside. Using data from the Harvard Voting and Election Science Team, we can break down how likely each district is to vote for a Democrat or Republican using the district’s average of the 2016 Presidential, 2018 Gubernatorial, 2020 Presidential and 2020 Senate elections.

Map Option 2 (East Anchorage Plantiff Plan)
Map created using Dave’s Redistricting App

Map 2, offered by some of the East Anchorage plantiffs that won their Supreme Court case, would have paired communities of interest together in a sensible way. Many of the pairings here reflect requests from communities that have testified at both the state and municipal redistricting processes since November: it unites North and South Muldoon, both Eagle River’s House Districts, keeps Downtown/Fairview with the remainder of Downtown, and keeps a majority of the Midtown business core together.

It is a largely competitive map. The data leaves some districts in the “competitive” category, but some of those have clear partisan leans — the Abbott Loop/Hillside district is bound to be an uphill battle for a Democrat; the broader West Anchorage district is on the other side of that spectrum. In most cycles, it will probably end up a 3R-3D map with two genuinely toss-up seats.

It is unclear why the three conservative board members disapproved of this plan. Even after listening to all the redistricting board meetings on these new pairings, none of them could articulate what was wrong with this plan. They only had thoughts on why their plan was better.

This map, as well as an earlier plan put forward by independent board member Melanie Bahnke, was heavily politicized by conservative media. Must Read Alaska put out several hit pieces claiming it was the work of Democrats, and that any map that didn’t split up Eagle River’s district was depriving them of the two senators the area is entitled to.

Map Option 3B (Marcum-Ruedrich Plan)
Map created using Dave’s Redistricting App

Map 3B was drawn up by Randy Ruedrich and board member Bethany Marcum. Marcum fixed the Senate pairings the last time around, which went to court and lost. Randy is the former party chair for the state GOP, who was forced to leave in exile due to ethics violations. Randy helped fix the Senate pairings in 2012, which were also gerrymandered and successfully broke apart the Bipartisan Senate Coalition and led to full GOP takeover of all branches of state government.

Map 3B makes some questionable choices that resemble board member Marcum’s attempt to fix the Anchorage pairings in favor of GOP representatives.

First, it pairs South Anchorage with the Eagle River Valley. During the Anchorage Reapportionment process, maps were proposed by myself and Alaskans for Fair Redistricting that paired the ER Valley and parts of the Hillside. This pairing received quick and intense backlash: multiple community councils drew up resolutions opposing such an idea, and the four Assembly members from ER and South Anchorage received overwhelming feedback asking them to vote against the maps.

However, in an about face, the same folks who opposed pairing them together called in to support the pairing at the state level. Some who actively testified against such pairings in the past gave conflicting testimony in favor of them just last week.

Case in point: Susan Fischetti of Eagle River. Susan was an elector for Alaska in 2000 and is an officer of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club. In October of 2021, Susan submitted testimony to the Alaska Redistricting Board in opposition of pairing Eagle River with Southside. Then, in February of 2022, Susan emailed the Assembly calling any maps that paired ER and South together a “gerrymander”.

Susan Fischetti’s testimony to the AK Redistricting Board in October ’21 opposing ER/South pairing
Susan Fischetti submitting similar testimony to the Assembly opposing maps that paired Eagle River and Hillside

Then, once the board began considering new pairings, Susan called in to testify in favor of pairing Eagle River and Southside during an April 4th public testimony session.

The following day, Anchorage Downtown Assembly member Chris Constant pointed out Susan’s about-face. Shortly after, Susan called in herself and testified — again in favor of pairing Eagle River and Southside! Once Susan was finished testifying, board member Nicole Borromeo took the opportunity to ask why Susan had changed her mind, which can be seen below:

After a long pause following Borromeo’s question, Susan simply said that since she’s from Eagle River she’s more of an expert on the subject. According to Susan, “we don’t have an option, I don’t see anything else that we can do”. That is clearly not true, as there were multiple contiguous options available to pair the Eagle River Valley district with — including the other Eagle River district.

I want to be clear: I supported pairing Eagle River and Hillside during the Anchorage reapportionment process, which is a separate process that requires a certain population per district in a way that the state process does not. I lay out my reasoning here, but the most important part is that Eagle River did not have enough population to make up their own district, requiring an area from the Anchorage Bowl to be pulled into the district. Of the options available, Hillside was the fairest and most socio-economically viable option. Here, there were clear alternatives that the majority of the board decided to ignore.

Consequently, the 3B map was passed, giving the GOP a strong edge in the State Senate. Compared to Option 2, 3B creates an additional Safe Republican seat. The R-leaning seat in Oceanview/Taku/Campbell is also another example where the data marks it as competitive, but in reality its more likely than not to go to a Republican. So, 3B creates a possible 4R-4D map.

From the outside, that might seem fair — the partisanship ends up 50/50, right? The board’s duty is not to create an equal amount of Democratic and Republican seats. The majority on the board advocated for a map that preserved a partisan advantage for them, rather than one that made the most sense. That is indefensible at any level. It repeats the harms outlined by the Alaska Supreme Court, which decried the previous Senate map for extending Eagle River’s representation at the expense of another community. This time, they did the exact same thing but picked a different community to bite the bullet.

Lastly: as a cherry on top, Option 3B also pairs together two Republican Senators who have been a thorn in the side of the AK GOP. Coincidentally, they are the same Senators from the districts being paired together to create a GOP advantage: Senators Reinbold (Eagle River Valley) and Holland (Southside). Another coincidence: these same Senators called in to testify against being paired together! This will require them to run against each other in the same Senate district, essentially forcing one of their retirements.

What happens next?

On April 15th, the board must issue a status update to Judge Matthews at the Supreme Court. Matthews could essentially do one of three things:

  • Decide that his order was met by the board and allow the new pairings to stand for election this August/November
  • Criticize the new pairings for failing to meet the order, sending the board back to repair them again
  • Repair the Senate districts himself, which would be the first time Alaska’s redistricting process was fully passed over to the courts

At the end of the day, this is an inherently political process. Everyone wants to claim to be impartial, but we have a board full of political appointees with very little legal jurisprudence guiding what we ought to be doing to get fair districts. Nobody is impartial because the stakes are so high. I hope Judge Matthews recognizes this and takes this process out of the hands of the redistricting board — we do not have the time to do repair the Senate a third time.

If we run out, we may have to default to using the pairings drawn this year and then re-do them before the next cycle. But by then, the harm will have already been done: sitting members of the Legislature will have been elected under gerrymandered districts.