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"Poor Alaskans": Court Blasts Alaska's Redistricting

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It all started with a complaint in Petersburg. It ended with an absolute excoriation of our redistricting process.

Every ten years, in response to the census, states adjust district lines to accommodate for population increases, decreases, socioeconomic changes, and other factors. We assume it's done fairly and according to the data.

It never is.

The last round of reapportionment in Alaska didn't meet any rational smell check. The heavily right-leaning redistricting board focused on pitting political rivals against each other and erected new obstacles for left-leaning candidates and incumbents in their home districts.

It was a winning strategy in the 2012 elections. Republicans reaped huge gains amounting to super majorities in the state house and senate, with the Governorship safely in Sean Parnell's hands.

But Petersburg was none too happy. Objecting to the blatant partisan gerrymandering, the city, two city council members, and a qualified voter filed suit:

"As a municipal government, Petersburg provides a variety of facilities and services to its residents. A substantial part of the funding for these facilities and services comes from appropriations of State funds made by the Alaska Legislature... Petersburg's efforts to obtain such funding... depends upon adequate representation of the Petersburg area, and the inclusion of Petersburg in a House and Senate district that constitute a relatively integrated socio-economic area."

Petersburg's biggest complaint was the creation of the newly drawn House District 32, which severed the city from its natural and historic neighbors, Sitka and other small southeast communities, and redrew the lines to include it within Juneau city limits.

The complaint charged that "The Board acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and abused its discretion, in adopting the Plan."

Petersburg asked the court to declare that House District 32 "constitutes an error in redistricting."

They received that and a whole lot more.

On May 30, Superior Court Judge Michael P. McConahy handed down an order to the redistricting board that was one for the history books.

McConahy began with a reference to a court case, Deshaney v. Winnebago County, involving an abused child and an unresponsive child protection agency. He analogized the case with Alaska's current district maps, and summarized that the "lament today is 'Poor Alaskans.'"

His tongue only sharpened from there.

The Superior Court Judge chastised the lack of adherence to the Hickel process -- another redistricting process which committed the same errors as our current debacle, where the redistricting board followed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) without regard for the state constitution. The decision in Hickel was that the redistricting board should base its district plans off of the state constitution first and adjust accordingly to the VRA after. This did not happen, and McConahy called the board's decision to drag their knuckles until the United States Supreme Court weighed in "dilatory and, at the most generous, disingenuous."

Judge McConahy also lambasted the lack of a public process, saying that the plan that ultimately created our current districts had "not been finalized by the Board and certainly not presented to the public. The Board contends it is not required to hold hearings. It is wrong. Any argument that the hearings held in 2011 on plans that were found to be unconstitutional is inartful at best. At worst it is a sad commentary upon Alaskan life and constitutional principles."

After taking a page or so to run the redistricting board through a history lesson comprising Marbury v. Madison and Brown v. Board, McConahy finished by reasserting the authority of the judicial branch of state government -- "the judiciary, not the Board, shall determine the constitutionality of the redistricting process" -- and then directed the redistricting board to resist the comfort of their laurels and get to work fixing the problem they allowed to become what the rest of us know as Alaska's 28th legislature.

Can we get a mulligan?