Without much public notice, Maine has been caught in a serious violation of a fundamental constitutional guarantee. It was heading into next year’s congressional election without reapportioning its two electoral districts to make them equal.
A commission began this week to rectify this error.
Two registered Republican voters in Cape Elizabeth brought and won a lawsuit, and now the Legislature has ordered a prompt redistricting. It established a special reapportionment commission, set a deadline of Aug. 31, and planned final action in a special session this September. Through a legislative quirk, Maine law had scheduled congressional reapportionments three years after each census. Only Maine and Montana move this slowly.
At issue is the principle of one man, one vote. (Correct modern use would say, “one man or woman, one vote.”) The Constitution requires that a state’s congressional districts be equal in population. The Supreme Court has held that a state can be compelled to reapportion in time for the first election after a census.
That’s what a three-judge federal court did unanimously last June.
Maine Democrats intervened in the lawsuit, wary that the commission might gerrymander the congressional districts to favor Republicans. Both seats now are held by Democrats — Rep. Chellie Pingree in the 1st District and Rep. Mike Michaud in the 2nd.
Democrats fear that redistricting could break up the 2nd District’s Franco-American vote, seen as generally Democratic. Republicans are said to want to keep the liberals in the 1st district while making the 2nd more conservative.
Despite partisan desires, the commission is made up of reasonable representatives from both parties and the federal court retained jurisdiction and will be watching to see that the commission sticks to a tight schedule. Maine law requires that each district is formed of “compact and contiguous territory.”
The apportionment in the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 elections was based on the 2000 census in a plan that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ordered after a legislative stalemate. The 1st District had 637,450 residents, and the 2nd had 637,473. The difference was only 23. But the 2010 census showed that the 1st District had 8,669 more residents than the 2nd, giving a voter in the 1st District less voting power.
The court found this to be “a significant, unjustified and easily correctable population variance.” It said that the districts, as they stood, were “malapportioned” and violated the U.S. Constitution.
The court disposed of Democratic objections that the existing apportionment was constitutional and reasonable, saying that they were “unpersuasive” and rested on “quicksand.”
Bringing Maine into line with the U.S. Constitution is overdue. The next step should be to re-examine Maine’s redistricting requirements so that they are more timely.