Alaska’s legislative districts are drawn by a five-member Redistricting Board. Each person is appointed by an elected official, which has resulted in partisan bias.5 In 2021, two Alaska Natives were appointed to the board – Nicole Borromeo, Vice President and General Counsel for Alaska Federation of Natives, and Melanie Bahnke, President of the Kawerak tribal consortium; both are registered with no party – a first for Alaska. The other three board members were appointed by Republican elected officials. The leadership of Borromeo and Bahnke in conducting outreach to Native populations, actively listening to testimony of far flung communities, and fighting through multiple rounds of litigation, was important to a court’s eventual adoption of maps that would respect Native communities.
Community of Interest Story:
The Alaska Native community of Muldoon organized to secure district maps that would give residents an opportunity to have a vote that counts. The municipality of Anchorage includes over 30 neighborhoods and communities. Muldoon is a neighborhood in northeast Anchorage with a significant Alaska Native population, and an overall population large enough to be split into two state house districts. The question arose of how to pair the house districts into one senate district. The politically appointed redistricting board voted along partisan lines to reject the proposed plan of the two Alaska Native board members, Borromeo and Bahnke. The board instead adopted a redistricting plan that split Muldoon into two senate districts and paired the southern portion with the neighborhood of Eagle River. Board member Borromeo, who was also Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives, said, “I see no reasonable explanation for splitting Muldoon,” noting that Eagle River’s high income and predominantly white population would submerge Muldoon’s more racially diverse and middle income population.
East Anchorage plaintiffs sued, challenging the proposed map as a partisan gerrymander. The Alaska Supreme Court found, in a 141-page opinion, that the trial court was correct in finding that the maps were an illegal partisan gerrymander. When the commission redrew the lines, again splitting along partisan lines, the three-member majority doubled down, again splitting Muldoon, and pairing it with Girdwood. Alaskans again challenged the maps.
The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the map was a political gerrymander. Ultimately, the minority map that had been proposed by the Alaska Native commissioners, which unified Muldoon into one senate district, was adopted.
Overall State Grade: B
The outreach received high marks. Pushed by independent board members Borromeo and Bahnke, the board held 26 hearings, reaching rural villages in just about every part of the state. The board also provided a virtual testimony option, which created a COVID-safe and convenient alternative for people who could not travel to the hearing locations. However, the overall process is marred by the political nature of the appointments to the board which required multiple rounds of court correction before final fair state maps that recognized Alaska Native communities were adopted.
- Reform the Redistricting Board: There must be a Board selection process that does not involve giving highly partisan elected officials the power to directly appoint. Further, require that the final adoption of any plan include at least one vote of a board member from each partisan group represented on the board.
- Strengthen Alaskan constitutional language by banning partisan and incumbent gerrymandering outright: No district shall be drawn that unduly favors or discriminates against a party, incumbent, or candidate.
- Improve public participation: There should be hearings around the state, including many rural areas and villages, to ensure all Alaskans can participate. In addition, the state must provide virtual options for public input to allow regular people who cannot travel or take time off to be able to participate remotely and safely. It is also recommended to conduct outreach in Native Alaskan languages early and often.