AUGUSTA, Maine — Redistricting will be one of the first jobs for the new Maine Legislature in 2021, as lawmakers must sprint to balance the populations of Maine’s two congressional districts and shuffle many of the 186 legislative districts.
While final data from the U.S. Census Bureau are not expected until next year, Maine is all but certain to continue to have two congressional districts, although it may be the least populous state that will get to send two U.S. representatives to Congress for the next decade.
The more conservative 2nd Congressional District has lost population over the past decade while the reliably liberal 1st District has grown. Population estimates from 2018 suggest roughly 15,000 people in the 1st District could be shifted to the 2nd District when new maps are drawn. It is likely to make the latter swing district held by Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, slightly more liberal.
Both congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years based on updated population counts. It is a consensus process in Maine. Party leaders appoint members to a 15-member advisory commission tasked with drafting maps based on the results of the latest Census. Those maps must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers. If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement by Jun. 11, the task is left to Maine’s high court.
Democrats kept their majorities in both chambers of the Legislature this session, setting up different redistricting circumstances than a decade ago, when Republicans achieved a trifecta after a wave year in 2010. But the supermajority requirement tempers the effect of party control.
Under the Maine Constitution, districts must be contiguous, compact and cross as few political subdivisions as possible. They are also supposed to be as close as possible in terms of total population. There is no formal cutoff for what counts as close enough, but a noticeable differential could provoke a court challenge.
There is no requirement that the new legislative districts mirror the current ones, although lawmakers generally aim to avoid revamping districts in ways that two incumbents would have to run against each other, though independent members have seen districts broken up before.
More drastic plans have gotten pushback. A Republican redistricting plan for congressional districts in 2011 sought to move Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Kennebec counties into the 2nd District and Oxford, Androscoggin and part of Franklin to the 1st District, making the 2nd District more conservative as Republicans aimed to flip it, which they did in 2014.
That would have moved U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s island town of North Haven from the 1st District to the 2nd District. It was ultimately rejected in favor of a less disruptive map that moved the Kennebec County municipalities of Waterville and Winslow from the 2nd District to the 1st District, while a dozen of the county’s smaller communities shifted in the opposite direction. Kennebec is the only county split between the two districts.
Moving Androscoggin County to the 1st District would be a non-starter for Democrats again in 2021, especially since it includes Lewiston, Golden’s home city. The most likely realignment may consist of moving cities or towns in Kennebec County across the district lines.
“I think what people really want is to stay as close to the current way as possible, so that would be my intent,” said Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who served on the legislative redistricting commission in 2013 and must appoint two members to this year’s panel.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said it was difficult to guess where lines would be drawn before Census data arrived. But based on population trends, he acknowledged that the 2nd District would have to expand.
If congressional redistricting involves only moving a few towns in Kennebec County, it is likely to make the 2nd District marginally more liberal. Of the county’s 13 towns that are currently part of the 1st District, just five went for Pingree’s Republican opponent, Jay Allen, in November’s election. Moving all five would not be feasible due to compactness and continuity requirements.
On the other hand, several liberal-leaning towns are candidates to switch, including Waterville, a college city on the northern edge of Kennebec County that belonged to the 2nd District prior to redistricting in 2011. Other liberal-leaning towns on the edge of the two districts include Winthrop, Readfield and Manchester.
The redistricting commission could be working on a short schedule in 2021. The U.S. Census Bureau’s counting process was also disrupted this year by the coronavirus pandemic, leading to delays that could result in the agency missing its Dec. 31 deadline.
It is also the first time that Maine’s Legislature will operate with the June 11 deadline. The commission will have to draw up both congressional and state legislative maps simultaneously. After the last Census, two commissions did them separately, with congressional redistricting happening in 2011 and legislative redistricting in 2013. But Timberlake said both parties would have plenty of incentive to work together.
“Nobody wants it to go to court,” he said.