In the Nov. 2 general election, Ballot Measure 1 offers voters a chance to increase the size of our state Legislature from 60 to 66 members - 4 new representatives and 2 new senators. I testified on behalf of this proposal in the legislature, and I urge all Alaskans to support it by voting yes on election day.
Everyone will benefit from having a larger Legislature because it will improve the opportunity for political communication. This benefit is especially important to rural Alaskans. A major objective of Ballot Measure 1 is to prevent rural election districts from becoming fewer, larger and more unwieldy. When districts become huge, the residents do not have a fair opportunity to communicate with their legislators. These large districts encompass diverse social, economic, geographic, and ethnic landscapes, often with conflicting political interests.
Some of our rural districts may already be too large to provide effective representation for their citizens. Senate District C, for example, covers an area the size of Texas. Traveling throughout such a district, becoming familiar with local issues, juggling conflicting regional interests, and serving far-flung constituents, are more than we should ask of a legislator.
Alaska's Constitution originally sought to assure effective rural representation by means of permanently established senate districts for geographical areas. But those senate districts became illegal under federal law soon after statehood. Now, all state election districts must now be apportioned on the basis of population to comply with the "one person, one vote" rule. There are currently 40 election districts. With passage of Ballot Measure 1, there will be 44 districts (House districts are the building blocks of the system; Senate districts are a pair of neighboring house districts). This means that every district will have fewer people than it would under the current system (total population divided by 44 instead of 40). Thus, district boundaries would not have to be stretched as far to include the required number of people.
Ballot Measure 1 may not reduce the size of our largest rural districts, but it will help prevent their further expansion as we begin the redistricting process next year. It may also allow Southeast Alaska to continue to be divided into five instead of four house districts.
Alaska's population has increased substantially in the last decade, and this growth has occurred in the Railbelt. At the same time, most rural districts have lost population. The U.S. Census Bureau will report Alaska's 2010 population next spring. It is expected to be about 700,000 people. Under current law, each House district would have about 17,500 people. With passage of Ballot Measure 1, each district would have about 15,900.
This means urban districts as well as rural districts will be smaller than they otherwise would be. All of the new districts created by this measure will be in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley. But neither rural nor urban Alaska gains additional voting power in the legislature relative to each other. With smaller election districts, everyone gains from improved opportunity for communication with their elected representatives. Alaska currently has the smallest Legislature in the country, and after this increase of 6 members it will surpass only Delaware (62) and Nevada (63) (Nebraska has 49 members, but it has only a Senate). The average state legislature in the U.S. is more than 100 members.
Harrison served as the executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board from 2000 until 2002, and as director of the Alaska Legislative Research Agency from 1989 until 1995. He is a Juneau resident.
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