AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Republicans and Democrats presented widely differing plans Monday for redrawing the state’s two congressional districts and, despite both sides’ insistence to keep politics out of the discussion, injected a partisan tenor into the process.
Maine has two congressional districts: the 1st District, represented by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and the 2nd District, represented by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, both Democrats. Every decade, states are required to reapportion the districts to reflect updated census numbers and the process is under way earlier than ever this time thanks to a federal court order.
The Republicans’ plan as presented Monday would move Lincoln, Knox and Sagadahoc counties from the 1st District to the 2nd District and move Oxford and Androscoggin counties from the 2nd to the 1st. Additionally, Kennebec County would be contained in the 2nd District and Franklin County would be divided between the two.
Among other things, the GOP plan would shift one-quarter of the state’s voters from one district to the other and would put Pingree’s hometown of North Haven squarely in the 2nd District.
The Democrats’ plan as presented Monday deviates little from the current map and moves just one town, Vassalboro in Kennebec County, from the 1st District to the 2nd District.
The competing plans, which were unveiled Monday during a meeting of the state’s special commission on redistricting, accomplish the same goal of making the population of each district essentially equal. Still, the political parties remain literally miles apart on the specifics and, with only about a week to come to a consensus, a compromise could be elusive.
“The Democrats’ plan shouldn’t be called the Vassalboro plan, it should be called the status quo plan,” state Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, told reporters after Monday’s meeting. “It protects the two Democratic incumbent congresspeople and that’s not what this [commission] is here to do.”
Democrats countered that the Republicans’ idea for splitting the state more from east to west rather than from north to south is a thinly veiled way to make the 2nd District more competitive. Under the GOP plan, heavily Democratic Lewiston would move to the 1st District and would be replaced by more conservative communities in Lincoln, Knox and Kennebec counties.
According to preliminary calculations from state Democrats based on 2010 voter rolls, the Republicans’ plan effectively would add about 10,000 new Republicans to the 2nd District. The 1st District would lose roughly the same number of Republicans, but most believe that district is firmly Democratic either way.
In 2002, Michaud beat Republican challenger Kevin Raye by 9,000 votes for the 2nd District seat. Raye, who is president of the state Senate, could be a candidate against Michaud in the 2012 election.
“This is clearly an attempt by Maine Republicans to redraw the congressional districts in a way that most benefits their party,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said.
Dan Billings, a Republican member of the redistricting commission and chief legal counsel to Gov. Paul LePage, said his caucus was aware that the GOP plan would result in more Republicans in the 2nd District. He questioned the figure cited by Democrats, though, and said the district still favors their party.
Democrats and Republicans serving on the redistricting commission each indicated a willingness to compromise on Monday, but the parties also staked out their positions clearly.
State Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said his caucus’ biggest goal was to get the districts as close as possible in population while disrupting the fewest number of voters. The Democrats’ plan creates a population deviation of 11 residents; it splits one county, Kennebec, which already is divided, and most importantly, he said, it only displaces the voters of one town.
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said the GOP mantra was making sure the deviation between the 1st and 2nd districts was only one resident, a goal their plan accomplishes. Contrary to the Democrats’ position, Plowman said keeping with the status quo only perpetuates the feeling among many that there are Two Maines — the relatively liberal southern area around Portland and the more diverse area north of Augusta.
Republicans also rejected the notion that voters would be displaced. Plowman said most Mainers don’t know who their representative is anyway.
As for Pingree, Plowman said the congresswoman lives on the very fringe of the 1st District, so it was always conceivable that her hometown might be shifted. Whether that happens matters little anyway. Even though it’s tradition, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives does not need to live in his or her district, and Pingree could always move to Portland, where she owns a home.
More important to the Republicans than displacing voters, Plowman said, was making sure the population deviation was as low as possible.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said it’s a fine goal to have a deviation of one resident but not at the expense of other considerations.
“The day after the census is taken, the districts are no longer equal,” he pointed out, adding that the Republican plan also does not adequately consider expected population growth over the next decade. That means, the process the next time around could reshuffle the districts dramatically once again.
Whether a compromise can be reached by next week, the next time the commission meets, remains to be seen. The commission must present a plan to the Legislature by Aug. 31 and the Legislature is scheduled meet on Sept. 27 to vote on the measure.
If the commission, and ultimately the Maine Legislature, cannot find common ground, a decision would be left to the courts, something that has happened in Maine’s last two redistricting efforts.
Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale specializing in election law and constitutional law, said redistricting is always political. Incumbents want to keep their districts safe, she said, and the historical minority wants to level the playing field.
Although she has not followed Maine’s process closely, she said from her perspective neither plan presented on Monday would likely see any legal challenges, even under the oft-cited “one person, one vote” standard of the Constitution.
“Most of these fights are political fights that masquerade as legal claims,” she said.
In most cases, Gerken said, states will try to reach a deal before the matter reaches the court system.
Sen. Plowman said the last thing the commission wants is to defer action to the courts.
Added Goodall: “We need to negotiate in good faith. We need to set aside the rhetoric we both participated in today and say, ‘OK, how do we create a plan that’s both legal as well as the best case for Maine citizens?’”
Michael Friedman, a Bangor lawyer who is chairman of the commission as the only independent voice, worked hard Monday to keep the partisan bickering to a minimum. Goodall and Fredette had an exchange after Goodall questioned the Republicans’ motives for submitting what the Democrat called a drastic plan. Fredette responded that he was offended by the implications and said Republicans were willing to soften their stance if the Democrats met them halfway.
Toward the close of the meeting, Friedman said he believed the two sides are more willing to compromise than their rhetoric might suggest.
One notable piece of the redistricting discussion is that the talking points are being generated entirely by two political parties when Maine’s largest bloc of voters is not enrolled in either party.