Voters to tackle redistricting rules with Question 4

Posted Oct. 16, 2011, at 1:17 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 16, 2011, at 5:23 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters may get a sense of deja vu when they look at Question 4 on the November ballot.

The proposed constitutional amendment they’ll see was part of the public debate before the Legislature adopted a congressional redistricting plan this fall. At issue was the part that would require a two-thirds vote by the Maine House and Senate to approve redistricting plans.

That’s part of what Mainers will be voting on Nov. 8. But there’s more.

The proposed amendment also asks to change when state legislative, congressional and county commissioner seats are reapportioned after 2013. Reapportionment of those districts would happen every 10 years after that, putting Maine on the same timeline as other states.

The two-thirds vote is something that lawmakers have adhered to in the past when voting on redistricting plans. There’s a statute requiring two-thirds vote, but that can be negated in short order by the party in power and doesn’t have the force of a constitutional amendment.

The proposed amendment also adds congressional and commissioner reapportionments, which currently are only covered in statute, to the Constitution.

The proposed changes became topical before the Sept. 27 reapportionment vote.

When Republicans threatened to use their majority to muscle through their own reapportionment plan without a two-thirds majority, Democrats pointed to the proposed constitutional amendment and noted that eight of its 10 sponsors and cosponsors were Republicans. Charges of hypocrisy ricocheted off the walls of the State House.

In the end, a compromise was made and the proposal sailed through the House and Senate with virtually no opposition.

Earlier in the session, the proposed constitutional amendment also flew through unimpeded.

“It wasn’t really a partisan issue,” said the bill’s chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Dennis Keschl of Belgrade.

Nor was it new. Keschl noted it was considered during the 2009-10 session, but abandoned because of the cost associated with revising the district lines.

Urged by an activist constituent to bring back the issue, Keschl agreed to sponsor the constitutional amendment bill and sought bipartisan cosponsorship. Keschl said he became keenly aware of the issues the amendment was trying to address: ensuring that each district’s population is as close to equal as possible to ensure equal representation in the U.S. House, known as “one person-one vote,” and bringing the timing of Maine’s reapportionment process into sync with the rest of the country.

The amendment’s two-thirds provision prevents either party from running roughshod over the other, said a Democratic cosponsor, Rep. Maeghan Maloney of Augusta.

“It forces the Democrats and the Republicans to work together on redistricting maps,” Maloney said.

The proposed amendment addresses a process that can get messy and deeply partisan. But in Maine, this year’s reapportionment of the two congressional seats was reasonably civil and tame compared with what went on in some other states.

In Texas, which gained four U.S. House seats because of 2010 census changes, it was used to squeeze out an incumbent who had become a bur under Gov. Rick Perry’s saddle. It was used to make re-election harder for a North Carolina Democratic representative whose own reapportionment work a decade ago made things unpleasant for Republicans. The process has also been used to settle political scores or give one party or the other an edge in Utah, Missouri and Illinois.

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