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Board chairman: Courts to blame for election map problems

No guarantee election will happen as scheduled, Torgerson tells Chamber of Commerce

Posted: June 8, 2012 - 12:06am

Alaska Redistricting Board Chairman John Torgerson criticized the Alaska Supreme Court for how it handled its involvement in drawing new state election maps in a speech to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

“This is a separation of powers issue, the court is trying to tell a constitutionally created board how to do its work,” the former Kenai legislator said.

Juneau and its Southeast neighbors got a close-up look at that involvement when they were whipsawed back and forth, with first Petersburg, then Haines and finally Petersburg again part of a Juneau-based district. That happened as the court reversed itself on how it viewed the board’s attempt to create a Native-influenced voting district in Southeast.

“We came down on the side that we wanted to protect Native voting strength in Southeast,” Torgerson said.

The Supreme Court however, told the board it had to follow the state constitutional requirement that districts be as compact, contiguous and economically integrated as possible.

That could only be done, Torgerson said, by taking Petersburg out of the Juneau districts and putting in Haines and northern Lynn Canal.

“That was the most compact and socioeconomically integrated we could possibly come up with,” he said.

Then the court, facing public criticism, said, “no, we’ll overturn ourselves” and swapped Petersburg back in, he said.

It was a 3-2 decision, but “three is enough to make the law of the land,” he said.

Torgerson praised Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, and Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, for visiting Petersburg and a trying to allay concerns about being ignored and not getting state money in their new districts.

“Beth and Dennis went down there,” he said. “That raised the comfort level some.”

The slow judicial process has now put the Aug. 28 primary election in jeopardy, and unless there is speedy decision from the U.S. Department of Justice to pre-clear the plan under the Voting Rights Act, the election may have to be delayed into September, he said.

Torgerson said he visited Washington, D.C. earlier this week to visit the Justice officials assigned to Alaska, but was unable to determine whether his explanation of the Alaska plan and the need for a rapid decision swayed them.

“They don’t hardly even nod at you, so you don’t know if you did a good job or bad,” he said.

The Alaska Redistricting Board did the best it could to move quickly, but the court system, which is supposed to provide expedited review of redistricting, needs to be able to move more quickly, he said.

“We need to accelerate the timelines, or at least explain to the court what ‘expedited judicial review’ means,” he said.

The state needs to revise its redistricting system before the next redistricting process in 10 years, he said.

State estimates show continuing outmigration from rural areas to the cities will continue to shift voting strength as well.

Sen. Donny Olson’s northern Alaska district is already larger than Texas, and will likely increase in size by 2020, he said.

“How are we going to draw districts that maintain the voting strength of the regions?” he said.

The current redistricting process was the “most non-partisan in the history of the state,” and didn’t let protection of incumbents or partisan gerrymandering affect the process.

The board itself was the least political part of the process, he said, despite being made up of four Republicans and one non-partisan, with the four Republicans appointed by political leaders and the fifth member appointed by the chief justice.

The most political part of the process was in the courts, he said. Not the courts themselves, but the political interests that fought the battles there, he said.

Torgerson defended how the board carried out its mission.

“Somebody had to be the big daddy in the room and make the decisions, and that’s what we did,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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