AUGUSTA, Maine — A commission tasked with the politically touchy work of redrawing legislative districts in Maine finished its work Friday with unanimous, bipartisan agreements on new House and Senate maps.
Friday’s vote concluded the work of the 15-member Redistricting Commission, which has been meeting for months. The commission’s recommendations now move to the full Legislature with virtually every one of the state’s 151 House districts and 35 Senate districts altered in some way. While shifts in population density were the primary consideration, the commission’s work was heavily rooted in politics. That’s because the process has the potential to move boundary lines in a way that ousts some lawmakers from their previous districts or forces incumbents to compete against each other in redrawn districts.
The commission’s unanimous vote was seen as a victory in the redistricting process. Decisions often have been left to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, including in 2003, when lawmakers couldn’t settle on a Senate map.
“We have reached a map that I think is reasonable and fair to both sides,” said David Emery, a consultant for Republicans who has been involved in redistricting debates in Maine dating to 1973. “It’s impossible to make everyone happy in a negotiation of this kind, but both caucuses should be congratulated for their work.”
Greg Olson, a Democratic consultant, agreed.
“Overall, this is a true compromise,” Olson said Friday of the new House map. “This is a map both sides and the people in the state can be proud of. This represents the first time in many decades that we’ve come to an agreement on both chambers of the Legislature as well as the county commissions.”
The Maine Constitution requires that legislative districts be redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes denoted by the U.S. Census. The commission had until June 1 to agree on new maps, and the Legislature has until June 11 to endorse the maps with two-thirds majorities. Otherwise the Maine Supreme Judicial Court would determine the districts.
The aim of redistricting is to ensure that all House and Senate districts include approximately the same number of residents. The ideal size for a House district, as of the next election, is 8,797 and in the Senate, it’s 37,953. Both of those figures are slight increases, though actual legislative districts could vary from those numbers by up to 5 percent.
Emery said that aside from population and politics, the commission attempted whenever possible to avoid splitting towns and cities, though there are still a couple of dozen split municipalities, mostly in southern Maine.
“There are a few districts on the map that some would say are ugly,” said Emery. “One is the district in York County that uses leftover parts of Wells, York and Sanford. That was an accident of geography. Given the fact this is a large and complex project, I think it came out pretty well.”
One result of the process is that because of a shrinking population in Aroostook County, northern Maine will lose a representative in the House and the Gray-New Gloucester area will gain one. Midcoast districts also have become smaller geographically because of population increases there. The Brunswick area will also see some significant changes in district lines because of the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station in 2011.
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, a member of the commission, said some of those changes gave the commission an intimate understanding of population trends in Maine, which in turn shed light on some economic realities. Chief among them, said Cain, was the struggle faced by rural areas in comparison to the more populated ones.
“If we want to have an economic development goal in this state, it should be that our rural areas don’t lose more people in the next redistricting,” said Cain to the BDN. “Losing a House seat in Aroostook County is not what any of us wants to see happen.”
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he also regrets the loss of a seat in northern Maine.
“I’ve had a little bit of heartburn about the changing of the numbers but I’m not going to say anything,” he said.
Michael Friedman, an independent who was chairman of the commission, said the process differed from a lot of work done by legislators in that there was very little policy involved.
“It’s a distinctly political process,” he said. “There’s not much policy in figuring out whether your seat is safe or whether it isn’t.”