Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 11:32 PM on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Redistricting board sharpens its pencils

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Seventeen-thousand, seven-hundred and fifty-five. Thirty-five hundred. Nine. Those are the numbers the Alaska Redistricting Board has to deal with in coming up with fair, equal House and Senate districts that pass muster with the Alaska Constitution and the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights act, explained board chairman John Torgerson at a public hearing Tuesday in Homer.

About a dozen people showed up to ask questions and share concerns at an informal hearing in the Cowles Council Chambers at Homer City Hall, one of 30 the board has been holding in April and May as part of the every-10-year redistricting mandated by the U.S. Census.

Pointing at an array of maps showing board and private plans, Torgerson explained the restrictions the board had to deal with in developing new boundaries. The board has two options with two alternatives, and private groups also have presented ideas.

First, 17,555. Dividing Alaska's new population of 710,231 by 40 House districts, that's the ideal size each district should be.

"The number one mandate is we have districts as close to that number as possible," Torgerson said.

District populations can deviate as much as 10 percent between two districts. The plans on the table deviate by 7.9 percent, Torgerson said.

To bring the current House District 36 up to about 17,555, it needs 3,500 more people. To do that, the board brought in Seward, Torgerson said.

"I wish Kodiak had more babies there," he said. "They wouldn't have to come up to the peninsula. That's what happened in a lot of places."

Pulling in more people to Kodiak meant moving District 35 — Homer's district — north. That in turn created a ripple effect, where northern Kenai districts have to tap into the Anchorage bowl. Under the draft plans, House District 35 no longer includes Seward and part of the eastern peninsula, with a new boundary moved to a new line north of Kalifornsky and along Skilak Lake. One option puts District 35 with 36 in Senate District R. Another option puts the Kodiak-Seward district in with a senate district including a Ketchikan district and Homer's district in with a central peninsula district.

Complicating redistricting are restrictions placed under federal law. Alaska is one of 16 states with large minority populations that the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires to have Department of Justice approval. In Alaska's case, that means nine senate districts have to have be either 85 percent minority or 35 percent minority influence. The current plans meet that criteria.

House districts have to be contiguous — "without lifting the pen off the paper," as Torgerson put it. With many Alaskans living on islands, ocean connections count, as with linking Kodiak Island with Seward. Senate districts don't have to be contiguous, he said.

Several people commented on the plans.

"I'm sympathetic to the challenge," said Stan Welles. "What I find interesting her is what you've done and what you're forced to do is pairing portions of Anchorage with highly rural, low-density areas."

Holding up a tattered copy of the plan, Bob Burns said, "Our dog weighed in our your redistricting." Burns said he felt the districts should follow borough boundaries as closely as possible.

"Here in Homer, the area across the bay should be integrated with Homer," Burns also said.

Torgerson noted the board plan does that. One private plan, by Alaskans For Fair Redistricting, splits the district down the middle of the bay.

Eileen Becker, a Diamond Ridge resident, said she felt sympathetic for Seward.

"It seems like they're getting ping-ponged around," she said. "I always feel sorry for Seward."

"I hope they understand the principle driving the decision," Torgerson said.

Torgerson appealed to citizens to appreciate the restraints of the board.

"All I want you to understand is the pressure the board went through to meet the requirements," he said.

A statewide teleconference hearing is Friday from 9 a.m.-noon and 2-6 p.m. at the Alaska Legislative Information office. Comments can be made after that, but to be effective and considered as the board writes its final plan, should be made by the end of the month. The board presents a final plan by June 14.

Draft maps of the two options both statewide and by area are at the Alaska Redistricting Board's website at www.akredistricting.org. To send comments or for more information, contact the board at Alaska Redistricting Board, 411 W 4th Avenue, Suite 302, Anchorage, AK 99501; (907) 269-7402; fax at (907) 269-6691, and email info@akredistricting.org.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.