Fairbanks Borough Takes a Mulligan on Redistricting

The Fairbanks North Star Borough has decided to challenge the 5-0 vote of the Alaska State Redistricting Board. In an 8-1 vote the FNSB has decided to take the State to court to change the redistricting lines and put them more in line with the Alaska Democratic Party's recommended redistricting plan. Is this a good use of taxpayers' money?

By: Lance Roberts

On June 23rd the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly, with a large audience attending, voted 8-1 for Resolution 2011-26, which would protest the State of Alaska’s Redistricting Board’s final redistricting map. That night the audience was heavily favored by those who support a redistricting map that the FNSB Mayor has been supporting with our tax dollars. This map was created by the Democratic Party’s Rights Coalition. The vote by the Assembly was tacit approval of the partisan activity of the Administration and could cost the Borough taxpayers significantly.

The Resolution didn’t just signal a protest; it specifically stated that the Fairbanks North Star Borough would sue the State over the Board’s approved redistricting map. By the way, the Redistricting Board approved the final redistricting map by a vote of 5-0, to include the Democrat on the Board. The Borough Attorney gave the Assembly an estimated range for court costs between $5,000 and $25,000. The cost incurred for the original plaintiff in the year 2001 redistricting lawsuit (which the then Borough Assembly wisely did not join) was approximately $1.4 Million. In that case, the State reimbursed the plaintiffs $1,047,781.32, but they incurred additional costs of more than $350,000. If this scenario holds true today, the Borough taxpayers could be on the hook for about $1.4 Million to support a partisan agenda. The odds of the FNSB winning this suit against the State are probably slim to none. To understand these slim odds, let’s look at the redistricting criteria mandated to the Board in order of highest priority to lowest:

1) Federal Constitution Equal Protection – One Man-One Vote

The generally accepted variation in district population is 10% from smallest to largest. The 2000 Redistricting Board exceeded this greatly and was chastised by the courts for it. The variation achieved by the 2010 Final Redistricting Plan is 8.46%, so it easily meets the 10% criterion. The variation of the districts with any portion of the Borough in them is 7.71%.

2) Federal Voting Rights Act

The Act requires that the Plan have the same amount of districts with the required percentage of Native Voters, as in the last redistricting. It was determined that four Effective House Districts, three Effective Senate Districts and two House Influence Districts were necessary. A consultant was hired by the Redistricting Board to determine the percentages. The required percentages came out higher than expected, which resulted in not one single map presented to the Board meeting these percentages. The Alaska Constitution doesn’t come into play in this regards. So, arguing State Constitutional issues in a Federal Voting Rights jurisdiction is a moot point. The Redistricting Plan is reviewed and approved for meeting The Voting Rights Act standard by the Department of Justice. In the 2001 Alaska redistricting case the Alaska Supreme Court stated:“…Board had a valid non-discriminatory justification based on its forming an effective Native senate district to avoid retrogression under the Voting Rights Act.” and “…the “fifth” Fairbanks district had to be paired south so that House District 5 could be paired with House District 6 to form an effective Native senate district to avoid retrogression under section five of the Voting Rights Act.”

3) State Constitution

The State Constitution Article 6 Section 6 requires that House Districts “be formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.” The new District 38 may not meet this standard, but since it was required to meet the Voting Rights Act, it may not be practicable for it to meet the State standards. It should also be noted, that half a district in Fairbanks has to be combined with a non-Fairbanks-centric district; so no matter what other area they chose to combine, they would not be able to meet this requirement since the entire Borough is surrounded by very rural territory. The Board had to choose from Ester, Goldstream, Fox, Gilmore Trail, North Pole and Salcha. They chose Ester, Goldstream and Salcha to make up the new District 38.

The FNSB Resolution is basing its argument on the following: “WHEREAS, the proposed Redistricting Plan unnecessarily divides the half house district, consisting of 8,806 residents, between two separate districts, …”, in 2001 “the Supreme Court held that: … (5) dividing borough among two proposed house districts did not deny borough residents equal protection”.

Finally, we need to address those who think that the FNSB will lose representation. We will now have seven House Districts and four Senate Districts made up of Borough residents, which greatly increases our delegation and influence. The City of Fairbanks also increases its representation to two Representatives and two Senators. Opponents might say if we have a legislator that doesn’t live in the Borough, that he/she won’t adequately represent us. Two points are in order: first, one should not assume that just because a legislator doesn’t live here that he will be a slacker. Specifically, Eric Feige of House District 12, which includes Salcha, has represented us just fine. Similarly, is the Borough Assembly not representing Gilmore Trail because none of the Assembly members currently live there? Second, anyone paying attention will know that FNSB voters are a very large voting block. Ester and Goldstream in Districts are about one-third of that District. Do you really think the legislator for that District will forget that?

Maybe the Assembly should reconsider its Resolution in light of the above overriding criteria. We could maybe spend the money more wisely on infrastructure.