On Friday, the Alaska state Supreme Court ruled that the Alaska Redistricting Board — a state agency that is formally charged with redrawing political maps every ten years following the federal census — drew maps illegally, violating the state Constitution’s equal protection doctrine.
The court explicitly stated in its ruling that the maps were an illegal partisan gerrymander — the first decision of its kind for the state’s highest court, and an outcome that sets up an important precedent that will prevent blatant partisan map drawing in the future.
State legislative maps in Alaska require each state Senate district to contain two state House of Representative districts. The Alaska Redistricting Board’s rules dictate how those two House districts are chosen for each Senate district, giving consideration to neighboring communities’ geographic and socioeconomic similarities, among other factors.
The board created two Senate districts while ignoring the concerns of many area residents over which four House districts should be combined with others, and held hearings on devising maps without giving the public adequate time to respond to them, in violation of the standards that were put in place for the board.
A lower court ruled earlier this year that the board’s actions gave an unfair advantage to Republicans, determining that the maps were improperly drawn and in violation of the state’s equal protection doctrine, which states that “all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law.” The state Supreme Court said in its Friday ruling that the lower court “correctly concluded that Senate District K is unconstitutional due to geographic and partisan gerrymandering.”
The decision doesn’t change the rules for how the Alaska Redistricting Board will operate moving forward — the same standards will remain in place, and the composition of the board will not be altered to give minority political parties any say in how maps are drawn, the way some redistricting panels operate in other states. In other words, in situations where one political party controls both the executive and legislative branches, that party will still have near-total control in deciding who to appoint to the five-member Alaska Redistricting Board, with just one seat being selected by the state Supreme Court itself.
But while changes to the board’s composition will not come about due to the ruling, the court’s decision does establish that partisan gerrymandering will not be acceptable in the future, and that challenges on the basis of one party drawing maps to favor themselves will be scrutinized more thoroughly. It also requires that the Alaska Redistricting Board determine whether an interim map, used in the 2022 elections, is acceptable for use going forward, and to argue its opinion before the court within the next 90 days.
Former lawmakers familiar with past gerrymandering celebrated the state Supreme Court’s decision.
“As soon as I read that, I actually said to my wife, ‘Oh my God, they’ve made it explicit,'” said Tom Begich, a former Democratic state lawmaker who is familiar with the state’s redistricting process and how it has been used to gerrymander in the past.
“This decision will put vital sideboards on the redistricting process to prevent political abuse of the process in the future,” Scott Kendall, a former chief of staff to independent Gov. Bill Walker, said in reaction to the ruling.
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