Redistricting board seeks public comment in Nome
By Julia Lerner
Members of Alaska’s redistricting board visited Nome on Monday to hear public testimony regarding their six proposed district maps.
“The redistricting board is travelling around the state to more than 20 communities,” explained TJ Presley, deputy director of the redistricting board. “In each community, we’re bringing a big set of maps with us because we want to hear from the public about what they think and how the maps are drawn in and around their communities.”
Three members of the five-person committee participated in the public hearing on October 11 at Old St. Joe’s.
“This is part of our public outreach tour throughout the state to present six possible maps,” explained board member and Nome resident Melanie Bahnke. “The redistricting board came up with two, and we’ve got other groups who have developed their proposed versions of our 40 districts for the state of Alaska.”
In addition to the two maps proposed by the Board, the remaining four are adopted from outside organizations including the Senate Minority Caucus, Alaskans for Fair and Equitable Redistricting (AFFER), Alaskans for Fair Redistricting (AFFR), and the Coalition of Doyon, Ltd. Tanana Chiefs Conference, Fairbanks Native Association, Sealaska and Ahtna. The maps include changes to the Nome Census Area, which grew from 9,492 people in 2010 to 10,056 people in 2020.
The Alaska Constitution has very specific guidelines for drawing districts. Article 6 of the constitution dictates “each house district shall be formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area,” and each of the 40 districts should be similar in size. During this year’s redistricting process, the board attempted to keep each district as close to 18,335 Alaskans.
“If you look at the board’s two versions, they’re identical for our region,” Bahnke said. “Some of the other groups have included communities from the interior, as well as communities from the Bethel region. Our version only includes our region plus some of the communities from the Bethel region.”
The board-proposed maps are very similar to the existing district, and stretch along the coast from Shishmaref to Hooper Bay, including Diomede and St. Lawrence Island. The proposed district does not contain any interior villages, but does include several Hooper Bay communities, including Chevak.
Several of the proposed maps move Nome’s census area inland, including more interior villages, to keep the region’s population close to 18,335.
AFFER’s proposed map stretches north to Shishmaref, Buckland and Deering. To the south it includes Nunam Iqua on the coast and the Kuskokwim village of Kalskag, and veers inland to include Takotna, McGrath and Nikolai.
The Senate Minority map has Shishmaref as its northern most village, excludes Deering and Buckland but extends south to Scammon Bay, and east to include Yukon River villages from Nulato to St. Mary’s and veers east to include Takotna, McGrath and Nikolai.
AFFR’s proposed map has Shishmaref to the north (excluding Buckland and Deering), Alakanuk to the coastal south and veers east to include Yukon River villages from Huslia to Holy Cross, and extends further east to Hughes, Tanana and Nikolai
The Doyon Coalition map is the most similar to the board-proposed map, and stretches from Shishmaref to Hooper Bay, and does not include any interior villages.
“The challenge with drawing a district for the Nome area is that the Nome Census Area has about 10,000 people, and the ideal district has more than 18,000,” AFFR representative David Dunsmore told the Nugget. “The question is, ‘where’s the other 8,000 people coming from?’”
AFFR’s map stretches Nome’s district far east, past Tanana and adjacent to Fairbanks.
“We spent a lot of effort to balance the constitutional requirements for equal population and compactness and continuity with respect to the different socioeconomic communities and cultural regions both in rural Alaska and urban Alaska,” Dunsmore said. “We think we’ve struck the right balance with reasonably close to equal districts so that people’s votes are all equally valid.”
Dunsmore was the only representative from alternative map proposal groups present at the Nome meeting.
Keeping cultural and socioeconomic communities together is key, according to Nome’s Mayor John Handeland, who participated in the public meeting.
“I think it’s important that we maintain that cohesiveness as a group,” he told the Nugget. “We have more in common with a lot of the coastal villages than the interior ones. Some plans in the past have really moved our district inland, and I like the board’s proposal that keeps things more along the coast.”
In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act divided the state into 12 regions “defined by the common heritage and shared interests of the indigenous peoples within each geographic area,” according to the ANCSA website, and past census districts have used these 12 zones as guidelines for similar cultural communities.
The Bering Strait region, adjacent to NANA to the north, Doyon to the east, and Calista in the south, currently represents predominately coastal communities, but several of the proposed maps move communities and villages across a number of ANCSA regions in the Nome Census Area.
“The 12 ANCSA boundaries in the state are really not just geographic, but I think people kind of identify [with them],” Bahnke said.
Bahnke said the board’s approach to the Nome district does a better job at keeping socioeconomic and cultural communities together than alternative proposals.
“Because of population requirements, trying to have one person, one vote, we had to go outside of our own Bering Strait region, outside of our own ANCSA boundary, basically, and pick up a few of the communities from the Bethel region,” she said. “If you take a look at the other versions, you’ll note that other versions include interior villages, crossing over three different ANCSA boundaries, compared to the board’s two versions.”
Handeland said his chief concern is keeping the community cohesive.
“I didn’t really look at what [the maps propose] throughout the state. I’m more concerned with just our area, making sure that we stay as a group and cohesive throughout this redistricting,” he said. “When you start getting into some of the interior villages, they have a different area of interest [from Bering Strait communities] and I think maintaining something along those ANCSA boundaries is important.”
Presley said the changes to the Nome region are minor compared to other regions.
As a longtime Nomeite originally from Savoonga, Bahnke was happy to participate in a public hearing in her home community.
“I’m really happy to be part of this board,” she said. “I think my expertise is the rural Alaska lens, having lived in Nome for over 20 years now, I think I bring that perspective.”