Alaska Supreme Court finds Republican gerrymander in Anchorage districts, orders new map

A sign outside an Anchorage courthouse
The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Supreme Court on Tuesday confirmed that Alaska’s redistricting board gerrymandered the boundaries of state Senate districts in Anchorage in order to favor Republican-leaning Eagle River.

In a brief notice, the Supreme Court upheld a lengthy Superior Court order issued earlier this month

“We affirm the superior court’s determination that the board again engaged in unconstitutional political gerrymandering to increase the one group’s voting power at the expense of others,” the Supreme Court wrote.

The courts’ decision means the redistricting board must adopt a different plan for this year’s legislative elections, ordered by the Superior Court judge. The board could continue work and possibly write a different map for the elections from 2024 onward.

“I think this is a spectacular response from the Supreme Court,” said Jennifer Wingard, a Girdwood resident and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that prompted Tuesday’s ruling.

The board has scheduled a hearing for 3 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the ruling.

“The Board appreciates the Supreme Court’s swift guidance and will meet as quickly as possible to implement an interim plan for the 2022 election,” said Peter Torkelson, executive director of the redistricting board.

The court’s action means the board must adopt a map known as “Option 2,” which joins Eagle River into a solidly Republican Ssenate district. Option 2 also results in two solidly Democratic districts and five competitive districts, two of which lean Republican.

The Senate map adopted by the board but rejected by the courts was known as “Option 3B.” It joined south Eagle River with South Anchorage and Girdwood; north Eagle River was joined with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and the Government Hill neighborhood.

The result in Anchorage, based on voting patterns from 2016 through 2020, would have been two solidly Republican Senate districts, two solidly Democratic ones and four competitive districts, one Republican-leaning. 

Wingard said opposition to Option 3B didn’t come from just Girdwood, and support for the lawsuit came from a variety of places and people backing different political parties.

“It feels like we’re fighting the craziness of a handful of people with a whole community standing together. And you know, we need that these days,” Wingard said.

Tuesday’s court order is almost certainly the final word in redistricting before this year’s legislative elections. The filing deadline for candidates is June 1, and the Supreme Court is the option of last resort for legal appeals.

Significantly, its decision appears to confirm that Republican-appointed redistricting board members colluded to draw maps favorable to Republican candidates. 

That isn’t entirely clear; the court said a more lengthy explanation will follow at a future date.

The five-member redistricting board, whose members are appointed by leading political and judicial officers, is required to draw the boundaries of Alaska’s state House and Senate districts to account for changes in population, as recorded by the U.S. Census.

In 2020, Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed registered Republicans Bethany Marcum and Budd Simpson to the board. Former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, appointed registered Republican John Binkley.

Former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, appointed Nicole Borromeo, and former Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger appointed Melanie Bahnke. Both Borromeo and Bahnke are undeclared voters.

In November, the board approved its preferred House and Senate maps. The House map was challenged in court, but both the lower court and the Supreme Court made only minor changes to the boundaries drawn by the board.

Circumstances were different for the Senate map. Bahnke and Borromeo vehemently opposed the plan for the Senate districts in Anchorage, but they were outvoted by the three Republican members of the board. Bahnke and Borromeo protested and encouraged lawsuits against the plan.

The board’s initial proposal joined south Eagle River with the south Muldoon neighborhood, and Muldoon residents sued, saying that the proposal would disenfranchise them and was the result of a flawed process.

The courts agreed, with the Alaska Supreme Court saying in March that the proposal supported by the Republican members “constituted an unconstitutional political gerrymander violating equal protection under the Alaska Constitution.”

The board was ordered to redo its work, and the three Republican members joined south Eagle River with South Anchorage instead. That prompted a lawsuit by Girdwood residents and resulted in Tuesday’s decision.

None of the three Republican members answered calls seeking comment on Tuesday morning.

This article is developing and will be updated.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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