Legal Standards for Redistricting in Alaska
The Alaska Constitution tasks the Alaska Redistricting Board with drawing new legislative districts every ten years when the census of the United States is completed. Article VI, Section 6 of the Alaska Constitution requires the Board to comply with the following criteria in drawing districts:
“Each house district shall be formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area. 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 whenever possible.”
The requirements that districts be contiguous, compact, and as nearly as practicable, relatively socio-economically integrated has been discussed further by the Alaska Supreme Court in cases from 1972 to 2012. Below is a non-exclusive summary of how the Court has described what the terms compact, contiguous and socio-economic integration mean.
Contiguous: Contiguous territory is territory which is bordering or touching. A district may be defined as contiguous if every part of the district is reachable from every other part without crossing the district boundary (i.e., the district is not divided into two or more discrete pieces). Absolute contiguity of land masses is impossible in Alaska, considering her numerous archipelagos. Accordingly, a contiguous district may contain some amount of open sea. However, the potential to include open sea in an election district is not without limit. If it were, then any part of coastal Alaska could be considered contiguous with any other part of the Pacific Rim. To avoid this result, the constitution provides additional requirement of compactness and socio-economic integration.
Compact: Compact in the sense used in redistricting means having a small perimeter in relation to the area encompassed. Compact districting should not yield bizarre designs. The Alaska Supreme Court looks to the relative compactness of proposed and possible districts in determining whether a district is sufficiently compact.
Socio-Economic Integration: Socio-economic integration means where people live together and work together and earn their living together. It has been described as occurring when a group of people live within a geographic unit, following, if possible, similar economic pursuits.
Equality of Population: This requirement of Article VI, Section 6 protects the “one person, one vote” principle of the equal protection clauses of the United States and Alaska constitutions. Equality of population requires each of the 40 house districts to be populated, as near as practicable, with 1/40th of the State’s population. Because of the realities of Alaska’s vast geography and population distribution, there are always some “deviations” in populations between districts.
A negative deviation occurs when a district is underpopulated (has less than 1/40th of the State’s population) whereas a positive deviation occurs when it is overpopulated (has more than 1/40th of the State’s population).
Without adopting a specific numeric standard, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that technological advancements have made it practicable, particularly in urban areas, for the Board to achieve deviations substantially below the ten (10) percent federal threshold. This requires the Board to minimize, as much as practicable, the difference between the greatest positive and negative deviations. Some population deviation is permissible if the Board finds it would be impracticable to avoid such deviation in light of competing requirements imposed under either federal or state law.