Democratic redistricting plan advances

Posted Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in News

Democratic redistricting plan advances

By Marian McCue

AUGUSTA – In the end, it all came down to one vote. Phase One of the state’s Congressional redistricting process ended on Tuesday, when Redistricting Commission Chairman Michael Friedman broke a party line tie vote to advance a Democratic plan to redraw Maine’s district lines.

The issue now goes to the Legislature, which will consider redistricting in a special session Sept. 27. If they can’t approve a plan on a two-thirds vote, the issue will be decided by the Maine Supreme Court, which seems likely at this point.

After each United States Census, the state is required to redraw the Congressional districts to achieve equal population between the two Districts.  For the past weeks, Democrats and Republicans have been meeting in caucuses to draw new lines for the districts that would have as equal a representation as possible. 

The current population variance between the two Districts is over 8,000 people, which is why the U.S. District Court ordered the Congressional Districts to be redrawn this year, prior to next year’s elections.

The process has operated on many levels, with most of it going on behind the scenes.  Democrats and Republicans sometimes seem to be going through the motions of the Commission process, without much hope that they would come to consensus on new District maps. Parties always fight to gain advantage in this process, which is why the most recent redistrictings have ended up in the Maine Supreme Court.

Before casting his decisive vote at the meeting on Tuesday, Friedman described the political maneuvering in the process.

“I think there was a little gerrymandering here,” said Friedman. “One side wanted a little more Republicans, the other side wanted a little more Democrats.” He reminded listeners that most Maine voters are independent, as he is, and are mostly left out of a process that is dominated by the major parties. (Gerrymandering, named after an early Massachusetts Governor Gerry who was said to have drawn districts looking like salamanders, is defined as drawing a district to the advantage of one politician or party.)

Friedman also criticized the approach followed by the Republican Commissioners, who argued that limiting the population variance between the two districts to one person was the overriding criterion in forming the plans. Friedman, a Bangor attorney who has served as Chairman of the Maine Ethics Commission, said that other concerns were just as important, such as moving the fewest number of people between districts, and keeping together areas of similar economic interest. Friedman said the 2003 redistricting, done by the Maine Supreme Court, had approved a population variance of 23 between the two districts.

The plan that was approved Tuesday on the close, party-line vote was the third plan submitted by the Democrats. While their initial plan moved only the town of Vassalboro, population 4,340 from the First District to the Second District, the plan known as the Gardiner-Vassalboro plan moves a total of seven towns and over 19,000 residents between the two districts.

Under that plan, the towns of Gardiner, Vassalboro, Vienna, Rome, and Unity Township switch to the Second Congressional District, and the towns of Oakland and Wayne join the First Congressional District. It continues the historical split in Kennebec County. 

A fight just beginning? 

The need for two-thirds majority approval may spell doom for any Democratic plan in a Republican controlled Legislature, and many observers feel Republicans might push for a simple majority vote to push through their own plan.  Both parties have previously said they were committed to the concept of a two-thirds majority on redistricting, which would make for a fierce fight if the issue comes up.

Commission member Kenneth Fredette (R-Newport) told reporters after the meeting that the Democratic plan would not make it through the Republican Legislature. That would seem to set up a partisan battle that may send the whole issue into the Maine Supreme Court, where it landed in 2003.

The Court that year stepped into a contentious battle that included not only Congressional redistricting, but the redistricting of seats in the Legislature. The Court ended up approving a Congressional plan that kept Knox County in the First District, rejecting its own preliminary plan that would have moved it into the Second District and which was criticized by both parties. The Court in 2003 moved seven communities – Waterville, Winslow, Fayette, Oakland, Clinton, Benton and Litchfield from the First District to the Second District. It moved four towns – Monmouth, China, Albion and Unity Village from the Second District to the First District.

The Court at that time also dismissed a lawsuit by the Green Party that challenged the redistricting of Rep. John Eder out of his Portland legislative district, and forced him ultimately to move and take on another incumbent, Ed Suslovic, whom he defeated.

The impact of outside political forces on this year’s redistricting process was cited by Commission member Rep. John Martin, (D-Eagle Lake) who phoned in his vote from Aroostook County, deep in the Second District. He cited the pressures from the Republican National Committee, “which is trying to gain a new Congressional District for themselves.”

Martin also sounded a note of regret, saying that if the Commission members had more time, they might have been able to come up with a consensus plan. While several of the members said that was still an option, it doesn’t seem like an easy one.

“We all remain hopeful that a consensus plan can emerge,” said Friedman, noting that such a plan could come from the Legislature.. Other Commissioners said they would continue the discussion after taking a long Labor Day weekend break.

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