The Alaska Redistricting Board has put aside a proposal for new House districts in Southeast that would have pitted Democratic Rep. Albert Kookesh of Angoon against Republican Rep. Peggy Wilson of Wrangell.
Instead, citing "overwhelming" public testimony for maintaining the existing lines as closely as possible, the board Tuesday unanimously accepted an alternative map for the region from Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, a statewide coalition of Native and public interest groups.
The AFFR plan extends the so-called Iceworm district represented by Kookesh up to Cordova in Prince William Sound, gaining enough population to bring it close to the "ideal" district size of 15,673. The existing district has 13,286 residents, according to the 2000 Census. That is 15 percent below the ideal, or 5 percent more than the allowable deviation.
The district now consists of more than 30 small coastal communities from the southern Panhandle to Yakutat. With Alaska Natives making up more than a third of the population, it is an official "Native influence district," requiring map changes to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
The five-member state Redistricting Board was concerned that extending the long, winding
district into Prince William Sound would fail the "compactness" test in a court challenge. A perfectly compact district would be a circle.
The board proposed to create a new House district with Sitka, Haines, Skagway, Yakutat and Cordova, where there would be no incumbent, and to add Wrangell and Petersburg to Kookesh's district, setting up a potential incumbent-vs.-incumbent race with Wilson in 2002.
The board plan was opposed by Southeast legislators, and other public testimony was one-sided against it, board members said.
Board member Michael Lessmeier of Juneau, who proposed accepting the AFFR map for Southeast, said he's still not convinced it will stand up in court. A similar map was rejected by the Alaska Supreme Court in 1983, although AFFR says there is now more evidence of interaction between Cordova and Southeast.
Lessmeier said he was moved by "pretty overwhelming support for what I would call the status quo."
"The status quo has done a great job for all the communities of Southeast Alaska," he said.
The board's attorney, Philip Volland, said constitutional mandates in drawing new districts are higher priorities than public opinion.
Noncompact districts are allowed if they're "driven by geography," with no other choices that would bring the population within an acceptable deviation from the ideal and also conform with the federal Voting Rights Act, he said.
Given that the board already proposed a more compact map that retains a Native influence district in Southeast, it would be "extraordinarily difficult" to defend the AFFR plan in court, he said. And an Alaska citizen doesn't have to be a resident of the district in question in order to sue, he added.
"I think that is a problem," Lessmeier agreed. "I don't think we ought to kid ourselves."
Board member Julian Mason of Anchorage said that in viewing Southeast as a whole, the AFFR plan is more compact than the board's plan. There are now four "extremely compact" districts, plus the Iceworm district, whereas the board's plan would create two noncompact districts out of the five, he said.
The acceptance of the AFFR map for Southeast, while tentative, is one of the first decisions made by the board on putting together a final map. Mason said he doesn't think it'll change unless there is a ripple effect from redrawing the rest of the state.
The board hasn't decided yet which House district would be paired with the new Iceworm district for a Senate district.
Meanwhile, only minor changes are being contemplated for the two House districts in Juneau and a Ketchikan-based district.
The board is meeting daily this week and during the week of June 4-8 at its headquarters at 410 Willoughby Ave. in Juneau. A final plan must be adopted by June 17.
Court challenges are considered likely thereafter. Cordova Mayor Margy Johnson has said the city would sue if separated from Valdez and put into a Southeast House district.