Tensions rise in Maine redistricting

While one might assume that redistricting would be easier in a state with only two congressional districts, the controversy currently surrounding redistricting in Maine proves that such an assumption is far from safe.

In Maine, both congressional and state legislative redistricting begin in the Advisory Apportionment Commission. This is a hybrid model encompassing both private citizens and public officials. Both the speaker of the state House of Representatives and the House minority leader appoint three members of the legislature, and Senate majority and minority leaders appoint two legislators each. Finally, the state chairpersons of each major party (or their private citizen designees) join. Each party’s six members on the commission appoint a private citizen; the two private citizens then choose a third member of the public, rounding out the commission at 15 members.

This bi-partisan commission submits a redistricting plan to the state legislature, which then has thirty days to consider the plan or enact a plan of its own. The final plan must pass the legislature by a two-thirds majority, which is subject to veto by the governor. If the 30-day deadline is not met, redistricting authority is passed to the Maine Supreme Court, which is what occurred in the 2001-2002 redistricting cycle. In the end, the court made very few changes to the existing redistricting plan, switching just seven communities from one congressional district to the other.

Maine’s 1st district is currently held by Democrat Chellie Pingree and has a population of 668,515. Pingree was first elected in 2008 and won re-election over Republican challenger Dean Scontras by a 57-43 margin in 2010. The 2nd district is also held by a Democrat, Mike Michaud, and has a population of 625,198. He was elected in 2002 and won his 2010 campaign by a margin of 55-45.

Currently, Republicans and Democrats have each proposed competing plans for the redrawing of Maine’s single boundary. The Democratic plan proposes minimal change; it places Knox, Lincoln, York, Sagadahoc, Cumberland, and part of Kennebec counties in the 1st district, leaving the remainder of the state in the 2nd district. This plan would shift only a few thousand people from the over-populated 1st to the under-populated 2nd district.

The Republican proposal, on the other hand, would move an estimated 360,000 people between the two districts, shifting about one quarter of the state’s voters. The plan draws an east/west line between the two districts, relocating North Haven into the 2nd district and Androscoggin County into the 1st. The GOP plan would also put Pingree’s hometown of North Haven in the middle of the 2nd district. GOP members claim that their proposal creates the most economically and culturally homogenous. Democrats countered that the Republican proposal is a gerrymandering attempt, a poorly concealed attempt to make the 2nd district more competitive. For example, the heavily Democratic Lewiston would move to the 1st District and be replaced by more Republican communities in Kennebec, Knox, and Lincoln counties. Based on 2010 voter rolls, Democrats estimate that the GOP plan would effectively add around 10,000 new Republicans to the 2nd district, and the loss of 10,000 Republicans from the 1st district wouldn’t change the fact that the district is firmly Democratic.

The Commission’s politically independent chair Michael Friedman has agreed with the Democrats on this issue, calling their plan the least disruptive for voters. The final vote was 8-7 for the Democratic plan. The Apportionment Commission, however, serves solely an advisory function, since the legislature is under no legal obligation to implement the Commission’s plan.

On September 27th, in a special legislative session, state lawmakers will evaluate the two conflicting propositions; state law requires two-thirds approval to implement a new map. Given the level of controversy surrounding the situation, though, it is likely that the Maine Supreme Court will ultimately decide, as was the case in 2001. (Ultimately, though, the court made very few changes to the existing redistricting plan, switching just seven communities from one congressional district to the other.)

Adding even more excitement and tension to the process is the very small but still possible chance that the make-up of Maine’s congressional districts could alter the results of the 2012 presidential election. Maine is one of only two states in the country which awards its electoral votes individually by congressional district as opposed to in bulk to overall winner of the state (the winner of the statewide popular vote receives the state’s two final electoral votes). Since the initiation of this policy in 1972, Maine has never divided its electoral votes.

Presumably, President Obama will win Maine overall, (he won by a 17-point margin in 2008) thereby securing two of the state’s four votes. Regardless of how redistricting is settled, he looks safe to win the 1st. If the GOP is successful in making the already more divided 2nd somewhat more Republican, the Republican nominee would have a good shot at winning that vote, however. The last time that a presidential race was decided by a sole electoral vote was in 1876, however, it is not altogether impossible that such a thing could happen in 2012. Were Obama to win in 2012 all of the states he won in 2008 with the exceptions of the swing states of Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Nebraska’s 2nd, the vote would be tied at 266-268 with the Republican in the lead before Maine’s votes were counted. Were Obama to win all four votes, he would win the election 270-268. If, however, he were to lose Maine’s 2nd district, the count would be tied at 269-269. In that case, the tie would be settled by a vote in the House of Representatives, which is likely to be controlled by the GOP, meaning that the Republican candidate would almost certainly become president.

Although the story outlined above is admittedly rather unlikely, it nonetheless illustrates the importance and potential impact of redistricting, particularly in Maine over the coming months.

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