A reverse population bomb

Posted: Tuesday, February 08, 2011

When the subject of this column really blows up in about two months, I’ll be among those noting that no one heard the alarm bells going off because we were too busy talking about recycling and climate change.

Most people here have been oblivious to the demographic time bomb that’s been ticking for ten years. But when the Alaska Redistricting Board reconfigures our legislative districts based on the results of the 2010 census, the consequences of not maintaining a growing population will become evident.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a national census every 10 years. The first census was conducted in 1790 during George Washington’s first term as President when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson assigned responsibility for the census to the marshals of the U.S. judicial districts.

To understand the process, start with the terminology: There’s federal reapportionment and at the statewide level, there is redistricting.

Reapportionment is the method by which the federal government allocates congressional seats to the states on the basis of total population according to each census. The number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives is prescribed by law and has been set at 435 since 1912. Each state is entitled to at least one representative and the remaining members are apportioned among the states in accordance to their relative populations.

Apportionment tries to keep the number of people in each federal House seat at roughly the same level. The 2010 census will increase the average number of residents in each congressional district to 710,767. That’s up from 646,942 in the average congressional district in 2000.

Redistricting is the process by which census data is used to revise the geographic boundaries of electoral districts within a state to ensure that districts are substantially equal in population.

Each state has its own constitution and laws, and the constitutional requirements for redistricting vary from state to state. Current Alaska law provides for 40 single member House districts and 20 single member Senate districts. Senate districts must be composed of two contiguous house districts.

Alaska is one of several states subject to Section 5 of the Federal Voting Rights Act. Under Section 5, Alaska is required to pre-clear any changes in election law — including district boundary changes — with the U.S. Department of Justice to assure minority voting rights are protected.

Following statehood, redistricting was conducted under the Alaska governor. In 1998 the Alaska Constitution was amended to create the Alaska Redistricting Board, an independent entity authorized to formulate and adopt a new redistricting plan every ten years without review or oversight by the governor or Alaska legislature.

After reviewing the detailed census data the redistricting Board will release a preliminary plan sometime during the final weeks of the legislative session. Hearings will then be held around the state before a final plan is adopted.

At the last national census in 2000, Alaska’s population was 626,932. Those Alaskans were divided into 40 legislative districts, each configured to hold approximately 15,673 people. Juneau’s districts were under-populated with 15,203 residents in District 3 and 15,508 in District 4. Kenai-Soldotna’s District 33 was over-populated with 16,466 people.

2010 census numbers released in December show Alaska’s population having grown 13.3 percent to 710,231 – almost the exact number to qualify for a single congressional seat. For the 2010 process the ideal population of an Alaska house district will be 17,755. (710,231 divided by 40).

For Juneau to maintain its current legislative configuration and level of representation in the Capitol, each of our two House districts needs 17,755 people – or 35,510 for our State Senate District ‘B’. The Juneau Economic Development Council pegs our current population at 30,661. It’s unlikely that official 2010 census data will differ much from this 2008 estimate.

After the Board finishes its work and the dust from litigation has settled, by law, our familiar Southeast districts will be re-configured to reflect our smaller relative population. Juneau’s diluted representation will contrast with communities up north that grew their economies and populations who will benefit from additional representation.

It’s inevitable that Juneau’s political and social climate will change with the addition of 5,000 neighboring Southeasterners to our Senate district. It’s a reverse population bomb and its clock is ticking.



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