With a modest time readjustment due to COVID, Maine is nearing the end of its latest “apportionment” cycle. Also known as redistricting, it is a process required by the Maine Constitution and undertaken every 10 years following a U.S. census.
Over time, the population of a voting district may wax or wane. Apportionment is the process of reconfiguring political districts so that every voting district has approximately the same number of residents. Theoretically, that means each resident has the same political representation. But…
The Constitution (Article IV, Part 1, Section 2) says “…the Legislature which convenes in 2021 and every 10th year thereafter, shall cause the State to be divided into districts for the choice of one Representative for each district.” It sets the overall number of representatives at 151 and then specifies: “The number of Representatives shall be divided into the number of inhabitants of the State … to determine a mean population figure for each Representative District.”
The Constitution provides similar instruction for apportioning Senate and congressional districts, and assigns this task to a commission established by the Legislature consisting of “3 members from the political party holding the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives” and three from “the political party holding the majority of the remainder of the seats…” On the Senate side, it’s two members from the majority party and two from the minority.
Those members are appointed by the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate. This cuts out all legislators who are not members of the two largest political parties, i.e. Greens, independents, etc. The Constitution does provide for five additional members but does little to broaden the commission’s perspective.
Two of the additional members are “the chairperson of each of the 2 major political parties in the State or their designated representatives…” The remaining three are “from the public generally,” but two of those public members are selected “by each group of members of the commission representing the same political party.” The final member is selected “by the other 2 public members,” both of whom got their seats by party appointment.
So, with virtually every member of the committee being a Democrat or Republican, or the chairperson of the Democratic or Republican Party (or their designee), or selected by the Democrats or Republicans, what do you suppose is top of mind for these commissioners as they go about redistricting electoral districts?
A case brought in 2011 objected to this process for “negating the voice of nonaligned registered voters in the redistricting process,” but it was dismissed because the process was already complete.
The Constitution lays out the parameters for redistricting, requiring that each district “shall be formed of contiguous and compact territory and shall cross political subdivision lines the least number of times necessary to establish as nearly as practicable equally populated districts.”
Despite these constraints we still end up with some funny-looking districts. Sen. Kimberley Rosen’s District 8 looks like a Maine stream rambling northward from Castine to Lincoln, almost 100 miles, rarely more than two towns wide.
The 10 towns in Rep. Genevieve McDonald’s watery district are all on islands, some with bridges and some without. Though it makes sense culturally, the district, by its geography, is not contiguous and requires a lot of land miles to get to the various departure points for island ferries or bridge crossings. At least Rep. McDonald has the advantage of owning her own lobster boat so she can make some of those trips by sea.
Should the commission fail to come up with an apportionment plan by June 11 of an apportionment year, Maine’s Supreme Court has 60 days to get the job done.
Because COVID delayed the release of census population data this year, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court granted a legislative request for an extension of the June 11 deadline for this year.
Once the commission produces them, maps of the new districts will go to the Legislature for approval. Failure of either the commission to submit maps or the Legislature to approve them by the required two-thirds majority (a bar increased from a majority vote by constitutional amendment in 2011) means the decision will go to the Maine Supreme Court, which would have 35 days to redraw the maps. The timeframe is not arbitrary. The secretary of state needs new maps by Nov. 15 so candidates for the 2022 elections can begin registering on time.
In 2000, the Legislature failed to reach agreement for congressional and state Senate districts, sending the decisions to Maine’s Supreme Court. Otherwise, the Legislature has been successful in reaching agreement on redistricting in most cycles. Opening the door to allowing participation by more Mainers not associated with political parties would be one way to improve the process.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.