Alaska Redistricting: Gerrymandering and Racial Divisions

It's that time of the decade again to redistrict state political divisions, and Alaska really has to be one of the simplest states out there to divide: For one thing, we only have one representative in Congress, so there are no worries there, and when it comes to divisions for state senate and house districts, that shouldn't be too hard either. Alaska is so huge, diverse, and under-peopled that, aside from Anchorage, there's never any need for block-by-block city divisions, and communities and regions should be easy to keep together while retaining relatively equal populations in each district. In other words, the regions and areas of Alaska are so geographically distinct that arbitrary divisions are hardly necessary.

But of course, that's not how these things go. Welcome to the convoluted world of the Alaska Redistricting Board, a world in which it seems necessary to fill what should be a commonsensical and neutral process with attempts at gerrymandering, and, as we shall see, issues of race.

Why do I say this? I say this because I am motivated to speak out against the ridiculous and dangerous proposals of the redistricting board. The maps of their two proposals speak for themselves: These are painfully obvious and potentially disastrous attempts to influence Alaska politics.

(Note: I will be specifically considering my hometown of Ketchikan and its region of Southeast Alaska. If anyone has other views on different parts of the state and how they might be affected, please let me know.)

Let's first examine Board Option 1, to our right. Each state house district is a different color, and since there are twice as many house representatives as there are state senators, senate districts are made by joining two house districts, designated on this map by the two districts having the same letter on them. If you can't see the letters fully, please click on the image or go here for more options. Immediately noticeable should be the two areas marked A. One, in the lower right in the darker green, is the district including Ketchikan (1-A) and the other is purple - not the purple district surrounding Ketchikan, but 2-A, in light purple, far away from us in Alaska's south-central and interior regions.

Before I make any commentary on this, let's go ahead and take a look at the board's second and only other option, here to our left. Again, Ketchikan and the proposed district 1-A are in the same place, but this time, 2-A can be found on the other side of the Gulf of Alaska, in light brown, made up by Kodiak Island and some coastline of the Kenai and Alaska peninsulas.

Let's put this all in perspective, shall we? I used Google Earth to measure distance between Ketchikan and other cities that might be represented by the same state senator.

The path to go from Delta Junction (joined with Ketchikan in option 1) to Ketchikan, and then from Ketchikan to Kodiak (joined with Ketchikan in option 2) is almost 1600 miles - and that's the distance on a perfectly straight line, too. To Delta Junction is nearly 800 miles, and to Kodiak is over 800. How could either of these so-distant pairs of places be represented by the same senator? It's like saying that the locals of Birmingham, Alabama and the locals of Washington, D.C. could be represented by the same person in their state senate - assuming they were in the same state. That's the distance we're talking about.

Let's also consider the actual legal requirements of redistricting posted on the board's own website. Part 3, point H: "Senate districts [must be] composed of two contiguous house districts." Yes, that's right - both of the board's proposals entirely disregard Alaska's constitutional redistricting principle that senate districts must be composed of two contiguous house districts. How are they even allowed to do this?

Not only would these distances incur huge travel costs for a future state senator and prevent that senator's constituents from ever being able to come together in any large numbers, but as I said at the beginning, Alaska is incredibly diverse. I've never been there, but I can say with little doubt that Delta Junction (and all the other interior cities in option 1 district 2-A) is about as different from Ketchikan as you can get with any community in Alaska, save perhaps those in the Arctic. Kodiak (and everywhere else in option 2 district 2-A) may be somewhat more similar in terms of fishing, coast guard bases, etc., but there's nothing that makes these historically Alutiiq lands on the other side of the state have more affinity with Ketchikan than my hometown has with the rest of Southeast Alaska.

... Or is there?

What does Ketchikan have in common with Delta Junction or Kodiak that it doesn't have in common with Metlakatla - a town that can literally be seen from Ketchikan but would be in an entirely different senate district? The only answer I can end up finding is that Delta Junction and Kodiak simply have more white people.

I don't say this lightly, but the conclusion is almost inevitable, especially when looking at the specifics of Ketchikan's proposed house district as well, which is the same in both option 1 and option 2. (Please follow the link to look at the map in detail.) Notice that not only is Metlakatla not joined with its neighbor Ketchikan, but the village of Saxman is also carved out to have a different representative and senator. Saxman literally is Ketchikan. They are a continuous urban unit and would be the same political unit as well if we were able to have successful local government consolidation. Why would Saxman be cut out? The only possible reason is its proportionally higher Native population. The inverse is true of the small exclaves of Prince of Wales Island included in district 1-A with Ketchikan: Coffman Cove and Thorne Bay. POW, just like the Ketchikan urban area, has every reason to be united at the level of state representation, but it is instead broken up so that Coffman and Thorne Bay, with overwhelming white majorities, will be kept with Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg as other majority-white cities instead of staying with more diverse, more Native POW towns.

The board does have an alternative Southeast proposal, but it's only more of the same. Petersburg switches from being joined with Ketchikan to being joined with Juneau, and Ketchikan gains Hyder and more of POW - but again just mostly-white areas. District 5-C, in blue, represents the more heavily Native areas of Southeast Alaska, save for a few exceptions like Sitka - but even though Sitka is mostly white, it has a larger percentage of Natives than Southeast's other large cities - Juneau and Ketchikan - and of course, a house district needs to have enough people in it as well.

Also note that in the larger picture, Senate District C is made up of Sitka and mostly-Native Southeast Alaska as well as the entire upper Yukon interior region (shown to the right as 6-C). Although technically these districts are contiguous, Grayling or Fort Yukon is even farther from Metlakatla than Ketchikan is from Delta Junction, and these areas are even more different - save for the fact that Fort Yukon has a largely Gwich'in (Athabaskan) population and Metlakatla is a Tsimshian community. Despite huge differences in these Native peoples' lifestyles, cultures and political interests, it seems the Redistricting Board wants to lump them together.

Why is this being done? Why is the economically, culturally and socially connected region of Southeast Alaska being carved up so it can be joined with more racially similar areas in other parts of the state? One reason might be blatant political gerrymandering - keeping Natives together to decrease the number of possibilities for Democrats in the state legislature. Another reason, however, might be the US Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here is a point from section 5, cited in the ARB's legal requirements:
No avoidable retrogression. Retrogression is drawing a district in a manner that worsens minority voting strength as compared to the previous district configuration.
Perhaps in all these ridiculous proposals, the redistricting board is simply being held to avoid retrogression. After all, if there is already a district with heavy Native power, by definition it would by definition constitute illegal retrogression to combine those Native areas with a big and mostly white city like Ketchikan. That's just the law.

Even if this is the case, however, I cannot accept lightly the sort of injustice and segregation that the Voting Rights Act has unintentionally imposed on Alaska. A just division would see four house districts and two senate districts entirely kept within Southeast Alaska. It would see islands like POW undivided and places like Ketchikan, Saxman and Metlakatla kept together because of how economically and socially linked they are. Native groups don't gain from this sort of gerrymandering either. Even if "retrogression" meant fewer state politicians of Native descent, communities benefit most from being integrated, connected and united.

A just division would combine people who share common political interests, not people who share a common skin color. Whether this sort of racial division comes from the Alaska Redistricting Board's machinations or national law, is it simply unacceptable.

[Note: All statements about relative ethnic make-up of different Alaska cities are based on demographic information easily retrieved on Wikipedia.]