The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska redistricting board picks new Senate map after Supreme Court finds a gerrymander

The board could continue work and possibly write a different map for the elections from 2024 onward

By James Brooks

Alaska Beacon

Alaska’s five-member redistricting board picked a new, court-ordered map of state Senate districts in Anchorage on Tuesday, hours after the Alaska Supreme Court rejected a prior map, saying that it was gerrymandered to favor Republican-leaning Eagle River.

In a brief notice, the Supreme Court upheld a lengthy Superior Court order issued earlier this month.

“We affirm the superior court’s determination that the board again engaged in unconstitutional political gerrymandering to increase the one group’s voting power at the expense of others,” the Supreme Court wrote.

In a brief meeting after the decision, the board voted unanimously to pick a different map for this year’s elections. The court-ordered map is slightly less favorable to Republican Senate candidates in the Municipality of Anchorage.

The board could continue work and possibly write a different map for the elections from 2024 onward.

“I think this is a spectacular response from the Supreme Court,” said Jennifer Wingard, a Girdwood resident and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that prompted Tuesday’s ruling.

The newly adopted map joins Eagle River into a solidly Republican Senate district under a plan known as “Option 2.” Based on historic voting patterns, the map also creates two solidly Democratic districts and five competitive districts, two of which lean Republican.

The map preferred by the board but rejected by the courts was known as “Option 3B.” It joined south Eagle River with South Anchorage and Girdwood; north Eagle River was joined with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and the Government Hill neighborhood.

The result in Anchorage would have been two solidly Republican Senate districts, two solidly Democratic ones and four competitive districts, one Republican-leaning.

Of Anchorage’s eight current Senate seats, five are held by Republicans. In the 2020 presidential election, more than half of votes cast in the municipality were for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Wingard said opposition to Option 3B didn’t come from just Girdwood, and support for the lawsuit came from a variety of places and people backing different political parties.

“It feels like we’re fighting the craziness of a handful of people with a whole community standing together. And you know, we need that these days,” Wingard said.

Tuesday’s court order is the final word in redistricting before this year’s legislative elections. Though Option 2 could face its own legal challenges in the future, the filing deadline for candidates is June 1, and no challenges will be heard before the election in November.

Significantly, Tuesday’s decision appears to confirm that Republican-appointed redistricting board members colluded to draw maps favorable to Republican candidates.

That isn’t entirely clear; the court said a more lengthy explanation will follow at a future date.

The five-member redistricting board, whose members are appointed by leading political and judicial officers, is required to draw the boundaries of Alaska’s state House and Senate districts to account for changes in population, as recorded by the U.S. Census.

In 2020, Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed registered Republicans Bethany Marcum and Budd Simpson to the board. Former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, appointed registered Republican John Binkley.

Former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, appointed Nicole Borromeo, and former Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger appointed Melanie Bahnke. Both Borromeo and Bahnke are undeclared voters.

In November, the board approved its preferred House and Senate maps. The House map was challenged in court, but both the lower court and the Supreme Court made only minor changes to the boundaries drawn by the board.

Circumstances were different for the Senate map. Bahnke and Borromeo vehemently opposed the plan for the Senate districts in Anchorage, but they were outvoted by the three Republican members of the board. Bahnke and Borromeo protested and encouraged lawsuits against the plan.

The board’s initial proposal joined south Eagle River with the south Muldoon neighborhood, and Muldoon residents sued, saying that the proposal would disenfranchise them and was the result of a flawed process.

The courts agreed, with the Alaska Supreme Court saying in March that the proposal supported by the Republican members “constituted an unconstitutional political gerrymander violating equal protection under the Alaska Constitution.”

The board was ordered to redo its work, and the three Republican members joined south Eagle River with South Anchorage instead. That prompted a lawsuit by Girdwood residents and resulted in Tuesday’s decision.

None of the three Republican members answered calls seeking comment on Tuesday, but in prior public meetings and again on Tuesday, Marcum supported Option 3B for its benefit to members of the military on JBER.

Though she voted to implement the court order, she said she is “sorry for the distortion of justice being done to (JBER residents). I think the ramifications for our service members are going to be major. The pairing that forces JBER military voters to be drowned by downtown voters means that JBER will not be able to truly have a voice in selecting their senator.”

Anchorage Superior Court judge Thomas Matthews, ruling on the case earlier this month, previously noted that the board’s references to military voters were euphemisms for supporting Republicans.

“Although board members repeatedly couched their reasoning in terms of ‘military voters,’ as the board’s argument confirms, board members either knew or assumed that JBER residents preferred the same political candidates as Eagle River, i.e., Republicans. The board thus candidly admits that its decision to pair JBER with North Eagle River was to amplify conservative voices by creating a safe Republican senate seat,” Matthews said.

Bahnke, closing Tuesday’s redistricting board meeting, was among the board members who thanked board staff and people who contributed to the redistricting process. She also thanked “the litigants who insisted that the East Anchorage and Girdwood Senate pairings were unconstitutional.”

“And then to Superior Court Justice Matthews and to the Supreme Court, I want to thank them for ensuring that justice prevailed. Thank you,” she said.

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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