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Battles over the redrawing of congressional district boundaries, based on U.S. Census population data released last week, have already begun across the nation. Lawsuits have been filed in many states although a single congressional district map has yet to be redrawn.
In Maine, by contrast, some political posturing and grumbling should be expected, but, overall, redistricting here will likely be a pretty calm affair. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
“Maine is better” than many other states, “but still deficient in many ways,” Robert Glover, a political science professor at the University of Maine, told the Bangor Daily News editorial board.
The process is essentially controlled by Maine’s two major political parties and the Legislature. This means decisions about boundary lines are colored by whether the Democratic Party and Republican Party will gain or lose voters.
A truly independent redistricting commission that looks solely at census data and not party registrations could make for a less partisan process.
Redistricting in Maine is relatively straightforward because the state has just two congressional districts. So, while there are numerous possibilities for moving towns along the border of the two districts from one to another, there are limited opportunities for the type of gerrymandered districts that have become common in many other states.
In addition, Maine has long had clear standards for district boundaries and a bipartisan commission that oversees redistricting, also called apportionment.
State law requires that legislative and U.S. House districts be contiguous, compact and cross as few political divisions as possible, with populations that are as equal as practicable. This limits the use of strangely shaped districts — known as gerrymandering — that are seen in some other parts of the country.
Under the Maine constitution, a 15-member apportionment commission is made up of Republican and Democratic members of the state Legislature, representatives of each of the state’s two major political parties and two public members, who are picked by the other commissioners. The public members then pick a third public member. The commission chair is one of the public members.
The commission is fairly bipartisan, but it does shortchange non-partisan interests. There was a challenge to the last redistricting plan on these grounds, but a federal court rejected that challenge in 2011 because the redistricting process was already complete.
The boundaries agreed upon by the commission must be approved by the Legislature, and a two-thirds vote is required. If lawmakers fail to agree on district boundaries, they would be set by the Maine Supreme Court. So extreme redistricting plans have been rejected in the past.
“We read horror stories about redistricting and gerrymandering in other states,” Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who serves on the apportionment commission, told the BDN earlier this week. “Maine law is really built to avoid that.”
Given these constraints, there is likely to be small changes to the boundaries between the state’s 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts. The changes are likely to be limited to Kennebec County.
The 2020 census shows that most of Maine’s growth has been in the southern part of the state. As a result, about 23,000 people who live in what is currently the 1st District, which is more politically liberal, will be moved to the more conservative 2nd District, so their populations are roughly equal. State legislative boundaries will also have to be redrawn.
BDN reporter Jessica Piper analyzed the census data and came up with three new congressional district maps. One leans Democratic, one leans Republican and the third is in the middle of the road. None of the district changes would have moved enough voters of either party to impact the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Maine’s process is generally straightforward and fair, and can be a model for many other states. We realize that redistricting nationally is too often rooted in the major parties trying to gain political advantage, so asking those parties to change their ways is extremely optimistic. But, at a time when our politics have devolved into divisive battles aimed more at scoring political points than getting things done to serve the American people, a less partisan approach to redrawing congressional boundaries should be welcome.
This editorial has been updated. A previous version incorrectly said that Democrats had more members on the state’s apportionment commission. There are an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the commission.