A proposed redrawing of the Alaska House of Representatives districts on the southern Kenai Peninsula has raised questions across the political spectrum.
While most of what’s now called District 31 remains as is, the latest proposed maps of the Alaska Redistricting Board carve out the Fritz Creek, far East End Road and Fox River areas and put them in what’s now District 32, the Kodiak-Prince William Sound area. District 31 would be renamed District 5 and District 32 would be District 6.
“I am still in the collection stage of trying to understand the logic behind it,” George Hall, chairman of the District 31 Republican Party, said about the latest proposal.
Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, also questioned the new district. Begich, who serves as the Senate Minority Leader, has experience in the private sector going back to the 1990s as a consultant and expert in Alaska redistricting.
“What the board has done — which is mystifying to me — is take Fritz Creek out of there,” he said. “ … Taking Fritz Creek out doesn’t seem to serve any purpose.”
Fritz Creek is currently in a voting precinct with Kachemak City. Begich said the board can’t split up organized cities like Homer, Kachemak City and Seldovia. The neighborhood of Fritz Creek is part of the borough, but not an organized city.
The redistricting board’s version 3 and version 4 maps set the carve out at the western boundary of the Fritz Creek drainage. It puts the area north of East End Road near Mile 8 in the new district all the way east to the tip of McNeil Canyon near Mile 11 East End Road. There the line drops south to Kachemak Bay, taking in both sides of East End Road to the end of the road. The northern boundary is Basargin Road and the eastern boundary is Fox River. The Russian Old Believer villages of Razdolna, Voznesenka and Kachemak Selo also would be in the new district to the south.
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, said she has heard from some East End Road residents who feel like they would not have a local representative. Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, now represents District 32, and like Vance, will stand for reelection in 2022. Vance said she plans to run again.
“If this current map is the final district map, I will obviously miss representing the constituents out East End Road,” Vance said. “I care about them. They’re part of my community.”
That’s one hurdle redistricting has to surmount. According to Article 6, Section 6 of the Alaska Constitution, “Each house district shall be formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area.” That section also says of the districts: “Each shall contain a population as near as practicable to the quotient obtained by dividing the population of the state by forty. Each senate district shall be composed as near as practicable of two contiguous house districts. Consideration may be given to local government boundaries. Drainage and other geographic features shall be used in describing boundaries wherever possible.”
Alaska’s redistricting statute says the plan also has to be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act.
The challenge for the redistricting board is drawing districts that have a target population of 18,335 — the 2020 Alaska population of 733,391 divided by 40, the number of House districts. District 31 has grown by 9.78% from a population of 17,971 to 19,147, or 4.43% more than the target population number. Begich said the federal threshold is plus or minus 5%.
“The board has drawn a map that has really wide deviations overall,” he said.
Version 3, for example, has six districts deviating more than plus or minus 4%.
Alternate proposals by the Doyon Coalition, the Senate Minority, Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting, and Alaskans For Fair Redistricting all have narrower population deviations. None of them take out Fritz Creek and Fox River from District 31. The board adopted for the purposes of public comment those proposals.
Begich said the redistricting board can accomplish its goals without taking out Fritz Creek.
“Really, truly you can do it without busting into Fritz Creek,” he said. “You can do it by bringing in Fox River.”
Under the contiguity rule, where districts should be contiguous, compact and integrated socioeconomic areas, putting Fritz Creek into an area that’s not accessible by road or ferry from Fritz Creek could violate that rule. Fritz Creek also has strong economic and community ties to Homer and the southern peninsula.
Begich said it can be argued the area isn’t geographically contiguous because it’s separated by water from the rest of the area and there isn’t a ferry connection, as is between Seldovia and Kodiak.
Hall said the contiguity aspect puzzles him, too.
“In that context, why would they take a chunk out of the middle of District 31?” he asked. “…Why not take it from the edges or somewhere else?”
“I understand what they’re trying to do,” Hall added. “But the way they’re going about it, they need to explain to us why they’re going about it this way.”
Begich called the Fritz Creek carve out “a beachhead.” He said that raises the question of “why?”
“It’s an odd, unusual shape, and it seems to be somewhat unnecessary, which would be my argument to it,” he said.
One answer to the carve out might be an attempt to siphon away liberal-leaning votes from conservative Republican Vance’s district.
“It appears to me fairly clear, the attempt there was to remove a precinct area that votes a particular way out of a Homer based district,” Begich said. “Whether that’s true or not is going to end up being a decision of the court if they adopt that map.”
Vance disagreed with that assertion, especially when looking at the more conservative precinct of Fox River.
“Fritz Creek has been an almost even split,” she said. “… I wouldn’t say it favors one direction or another. Fox River definitely favors me a lot more, at least on Election Day.”
Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who represents the Senate district that includes Districts 31 and 32 and the new Districts 5 and 6, said it’s too early for him to pass judgment. The redistricting process has only just started, with public hearings now being held across the state. Adoption of the plan is required by Nov. 10.
“I’m not reacting until it’s done,” Stevens said.
This is Stevens’ 21st year in the Legislature, and not his first time dealing with redistricting.
“I guess I’m saying, ‘Be cautious. Don’t be upset,’” he said. “There’s a long, long road until we find out what’s our district. I’m watching it, but not getting upset.”
From 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the Best Western Bidarka Inn in Homer, the Alaska Redistricting Board will hold an open house to discuss the southern peninsula redistricting plans. The board will hold open houses next week in Soldotna and Seward to discuss redistricting affecting those areas.
Other public hearings have been scheduled around the state. For a list of those hearings, visit www.akredistrict.org/public-hearings.
Public comments also can be made online at www.akredistrict.org/map-comment/ or by writing Alaska Redistricting Board, P.O. Box 240147, Anchorage, AK 99524.