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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The Alaska Supreme Court Monday ruled against political gerrymandering on the grounds it violates the equal protection clause of the Alaska State Constitution. The ruling sends a legislative map back to the Alaska redistricting board to set it right.

The Alaska Federation of Natives issued a statement commending the ruling.

The case arose over the pairing of four state House districts in Anchorage into two Senate districts that critics said would reduce the voting power of a racially diverse neighborhood and add a state Senate seat for a predominantly White, heavily Republican area.

When the redistricting board voted to combine two east Anchorage neighborhoods with two districts in the nearby community of Eagle River, Alaska Redistricting Board member Nicole Borromeo, Athabascan, said the decision opened the board up to “very easily winnable argument to partisan gerrymandering.”

The Alaska Supreme Court apparently agreed with her assessment.

Every 10 years states redraw maps of legislative districts to reflect the latest U.S. Census data.

In redistricting, the board needs to create Senate districts made up of two House districts that share a border. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and home to 291,000 people, or 40 percent of the state’s population.

Most of the city is in a geographic bowl created by the ocean and the Chugach Mountains. East of the bowl by 8 miles lie the heavily Republican communities of Eagle River and Chugiak, population 36,000. They are 75 percent White and 4 percent Alaska Native. Average incomes are $100,000 to $125,000.

In East Anchorage lies the neighborhood of Muldoon. The two House districts there are about 55 percent White and 9 percent Alaska Native. Muldoon is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation. Annual incomes are from $55,000 to $90,000.

(Related: Critics accuse Alaska Redistricting Board of gerrymandering)

(Related: Redistricting: Removing Native voices - Indian Country Today)

Last fall, amid heated debates, the three Republican-appointed members of the redistricting board voted 3 to 2 to pair two Eagle River districts with two Muldoon districts.

Adding the predominantly White population of Eagle River to Muldoon districts would boost Muldoon from 55 percent White to 66 percent, and drop the Alaska Native population percentage from 9 percent to 6 or 7 percent. It would also give Eagle River control of an additional Senate seat.

Alaska Federation of Natives board member Melanie Bahnke, Inupiaq, also serves on the Alaska Redistricting Board. She’s the head of a regional non-profit organization in northwest Alaska, Kawerak.

Bahnke said of the Supreme Court ruling, “Sometimes hard work pays off. Sometimes justice prevails. Today was that day.”

Speaking of her 10- year-old son and daughter, Bahnke said, “the first time Kellan and Ivy vote, it will be under a map that Nicole (Borromeo) and I drew and fought to make fair — and preserve. That’s an incredible legacy from a mother to a child.”

Board member Borromeo is executive vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives, a statewide Alaska Native advocacy organization. She said there was no reasonable explanation for splitting Muldoon, and the move flew in the face of the 95 percent of testimony to keep the two Eagle River districts together, and the two Muldoon districts together.

Reflecting on the ruling, Borromeo said, “before today political gerrymandering was an open question in Alaska. Not anymore. From here on out it will be struck down as an unconstitutional violation of Alaska’s equal protection clause every time. Melanie (Bahnke) and I did that. We helped create that case law.” Borromeo added, “the power has been wrestled away from partisan politicians and returned to the people. It’s a good day.”

AFN President Julie Kitka noted her appreciation to former Speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham Independent, and then Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger for appointing Borromeo and Bahnke respectively to the Alaska Redistricting Board. “Voting is a fundamental right. Every Alaskan, regardless of party affiliation, deserves to have their voice heard on Election Day. The decision today furthers this principle.”

Both Bahnke and Borromeo are “Undeclared” voters.

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