Imagine trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when the shapes and sizes of the pieces keep changing.
That's the task facing the Alaska Redistricting Board as it struggles to draw a new map for the state's voting districts.
Using the 2000 census figures released last month, the board must draw up a plan with 40 legislative districts roughly equal in size, each representing approximately 15,670 people. Each of those districts must then be paired with an adjoining district to create 20 Senate districts.
But every boundary change has ripple effects on every other district in the state.
"With the population shifts in the state, that definitely makes it very challenging," said Vicki Otte, chairwoman of the board.
The board wrapped up four weeks of public hearings last Tuesday and immediately launched a round of meetings to come up with a draft plan by this Wednesday.
Sitting in a darkened conference room in Juneau, the five board members and staff members watched as computer-generated maps were projected onto a screen to show various redistricting scenarios.
"Somehow, District 40 needs to be brought back to life and it needs about 4,000 more people," said Gordon Harrison, executive director for the board. District 40 includes Adak, the former Navy outpost that closed down in 1997.
"The Mat-Su borough is going to have to pick up one more district, and something has got to go away to give that area another district," said Harrison as the maps shifted from one scenario to the next.
The board has a number of constraints that make their task difficult. Among them:
State courts have said the population from district to district should stay within 5 percent of the target number, where possible.
The state's Constitution requires that each district be contiguous, compact and "a relatively integrated socio-economic area."
The federal Voting Rights Act requires preservation of minority districts, where possible.
Beyond that, the board must take into account the opinions of hundreds of Alaskans who think they know the best way to fit the puzzle together.
"Invariably, what we heard in the public testimony was their parochial concept of what they want," said board member Bert Sharp, a former state senator from Fairbanks.
Military base closures and migration to urban areas over the past decade have made the board's job more difficult.
"Unfortunately, urban areas grew at three times the rate of Native areas. That complicates the board's mandate to preserve minority districts," Sharp said.
Ten districts are considered primarily or heavily Native. They include those in the North Slope, the Interior, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Norton Sound area.
While the board faces a difficult task, the mapping software available today makes the mechanics of the job easier than it was a decade ago.
"I've heard people talk about literally getting down on their knees and drawing with pens back then," Otte said.
That software has also helped interest groups come up with their own maps to submit to the redistricting board for consideration.
"We played with lots and lots of scenarios and lots of numbers. It's phenomenal what you can do with it," said April Ferguson. She works for the Bristol Bay Native Corp. and is a member of Alaskans for Fair Redistricting.
Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, Concerned Alaskans for Redistricting Equity and a third group, representing the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Doyon Ltd. and the Fairbanks Native Association, have all submitted their own maps to the board.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the draft plan before the board issues a final plan.
"It's just like everything else," said Sharp. "Some people are going to be happy and some people are going to be unhappy."
Information on Alaska's redistricting effort is available through Hot Links on the Juneau Empire Online frontpage.