Options needed: Court disputes underlying reasons for more districts

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Alaska’s election district apportionment process has never been easy, and this year’s effort is heading in the same direction as plans created in previous decades — to the courthouse.

Alaskans rejected a measure last fall that would have reduced the likelihood of such a fight. The measure, which would have added a few seats to the Legislature, should be revived as soon as legally possible and sent to the voters again.

Having a few more seats in the Legislature wouldn’t solve all the complex problems that arise during election redistricting, but it could make the solutions to the problems slightly more palatable.

The Alaska Constitution requires election districts enclose areas that are contiguous and socio-economically similar. That’s a fine ideal, but meeting that standard becomes very difficult for a few reasons.

First, we have vast, sparsely populated rural areas that are becoming even more sparsely populated relative to the rest of the state.

Second, these areas are where Alaska Native people make up the largest proportions of the population. The state of Alaska is subject to the federal Voting Rights Act, given an accident of history and the presence of Native languages in common usage in parts of the state. The act requires the state maintain two types of election districts where Natives have significant influence — some districts where they comprise at least half the population and some where they comprise a third.

Take a map of the state and try to make all that work to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s nearly impossible. Suspicions arise about any plan adopted by the redistricting board, most of whose members are appointed by elected officials. So it all goes to court.

Alaska will always have several large election districts, given the thin population in rural areas. And it also will need to attach portions of its urban areas to more rural neighbors.

However, these odd districts could be drawn in a more acceptable fashion if the redistricting board had a few more legislative seats to apportion. We should give them that chance the next time around.

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