As the weather cooled and the leaves started to color in Maine last fall, the state legislature was heating up in debate over the Republican and Democratic proposals to redraw the Pine Tree State’s district lines.
The redistricting battle between Republicans and Democrats was likely the result of close congressional races in 2010, when both districts fell to Democrats. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who beat Republican challenger Dean Scontras by a 57-43 margin, holds Maine’s 1st district, and Representative Michael Michaud won by a 55-45 margin to take Maine’s 2nd district. In 2011, when Democrats and Republicans both proposed redistricting maps, the two plans showed significant differences. The Democratic plan presented little change to the existing map, while the Republican plan proposed shifting approximately 360,000 Mainers—one quarter of the state’s voters—between the two districts. The Republican plan also relocated Pingree’s hometown of North Haven into the middle of the 2nd district.
Both Democrats and Republicans countered with criticisms of the other side. Given that the two districts currently have Democratic Representatives, Republicans criticized the Democrats’ plan of minimal change as maintaining the status quo. The Democrats countered that Republicans were engaging in gerrymandering to make the 2nd district more competitive. Although a representative does not need to live in her district, Pingree expressed that the plan was “mean” and put pressure on her to uproot her family and move “on the whim of a partisan gerrymander.” Democrats also dubbed the Republican map the “Kevin Raye plan” because it included a shift of 8,000 Republicans into the 2nd district, which would have helped his rumored challenge to Michaud. However, partisan gerrymandering has not been found to be unconstitutional, and thus, such accusations would likely not have made their way into the courtroom had either plan been enacted.
Despite the partisan debate and fears of there being “two Maines,” Republicans and Democrats struck a deal at the 11th hour on September 26, and the final map passed with over two-thirds support in both chambers of the state legislature. The final map is considered to be similar to the previous map, and divides the state into District 1 with a population of 664,180 and District 2, with a population of 664,181. Consequently, the final plan adheres to the one person, one vote standard that the U.S. Supreme Court mandates. The final plan moves Waterville, containing the liberal Colby College into the 1st district, and shifts 2,500 Republicans into the 2nd district. However, Democrats have stated their support for the plan. In a press release, Michaud expressed he was “pleased that Augusta didn’t turn into Washington…really we’re one Maine at the end of the day.”
Maine is one of four states in the country to have an advisory commission assist in drawing the lines for state legislative districts. The State of Maine Constitution sets forth that the legislative leadership and party chairs are to select a portion of the commission members, who then select additional members from the public. The result is fifteen members composing the commission, with seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one tiebreaker both sides have consented to. The advisory commission serves the role of recommending a plan to the state legislature. Ultimately, as the 2011 redistricting debate illustrates, the state legislature decides upon a plan under a two-thirds vote, and it may be “any plan, even one that hasn’t been debated publicly.”
Considering the heated debate that occurred in Maine, a state with only two congressional districts and a carefully planned advisory commission to assist in redistricting, there is cause for concern looking forward. Despite implementing a redistricting commission, the final plan was developed as a result of much partisan debate in the state legislature. If advisory commissions are unable to resolve partisan differences in a state like Maine, there is little indication that states with a greater number of congressional districts will be able to devise plans that alleviate partisan tensions in redistricting.
A similar, but perhaps more effective plan might be for Maine to follow seven other states in implementing “politician commissions.” As Maine currently places the ultimate decision-making power in the legislature’s hands, a politician commission composed of either legislators or other elected officials might be appealing. For example, a politician commission in the style of New Jersey’s might prove to be effective in Maine. In New Jersey, each major party’s state chair selects five commissioners, and if these commissioners are unable to develop a plan, then the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court determines the tiebreaker. In Maine, a similarly-structured commission that keeps redistricting outside of the state legislature might prove to preserve the “one Maine” ideal and prevent future political battles that threaten to divide the state along party lines.
Rachel Provencher is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.