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New Challenge Sends Redistricting Back to Court

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The road to the 2014 midterm elections, which will include a senatorial campaign, gubernatorial campaign, and (as it stands now) a majority of the state legislature, may have hit another significant road bump this week. On Tuesday, the Alaska Democratic Party filed suit against the most recent district maps adopted by the Alaska Redistricting Board in mid-July.
The new challenge alleges that the board – which is weighted with a 4-1 Republican advantage – gerrymandered districts in the Mat-Su Borough, Kenai Peninsula, and rural Alaska. The press release echoes a scolding May court decision, penned by Superior Court Judge Michael McConahy, that forced the board to redraw the lines. Warren Keogh, a nonpartisan member of the Mat-Su Borough Assembly, released a statement on Tuesday announcing that he would be joining Katie Hurley and the Democratic Party in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the districts. It read, in part:

The Board has made two attempts to gerrymander State House and Senate districts in a very partisan way. Both were rejected by the courts. The Redistricting Board most recently made a third flawed attempt at redistricting.
The Borough population (nearly 90,000 people) is ideal for five House seats entirely within Borough boundaries. However, the Redistricting Board has established six House seats, two of which include areas outside the Borough, such as the Municipality of Anchorage and distant towns like Valdez.

Tuesday night, Interior Democrats posted a press release on their facebook page announcing that they now had “skin in the game”:

“The latest map from the Redistricting Board is flawed and does not meet Constitutional guidelines,” said Mike Wenstrup, Chair of the Alaska Democratic Party. “It’s time for the court to appoint a master to take over this process. The Redistricting Board has shown that it is incapable or unwilling to draw a legal map. The Redistricting Board ignored Constitutional maps submitted by third parties in favor of a map that violates the Constitution. This process has dragged on for too long and Alaskans deserve a Constitutional map.”

The complaint is anchored in Article 6, Section 6 of the Alaska State Constitution, which mandates that house and senate districts “be formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.”
The Democratic Party claims that the board did not follow these provisions and, in a move akin to a three-strikes rule, is asking the court to appoint an independent actor to redraw the lines without political interest and in accordance to the constitution.
Tuesday’s filing will likely be bundled with another challenge to the redistricting board’s plan, based in Fairbanks, which also calls for the court to take redistricting out of the hands of the board. There’s ample precedent of this in other states, but not in Alaska. Our state constitution specifies the rights of citizens to petition the courts to correct errors in redistricting. But the only adjudication expressly afforded to the courts is to force the board to reconvene and adopt a new plan, setting up an endless feedback loop without any sort of finality.
Superior Court Judge McConahy will be in charge of dealing with both those questions and the merits of the suit. The Fairbanks judge reprimanded the board for its previous two plans, comparing Alaska’s voters to abused children left without constitutional protections. That would lead one to believe McConahy to be sympathetic to the allegations. But with the Republican majority in the legislature already primed to take on the judiciary’s power next session, just how much authority the courts wish to assert over the board, the bulk of which is appointed by the governor and legislature, is unclear.

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