Maine’s highest court has extended the deadline for a special commission and the state’s Legislature to redraw legislative and congressional districts because of pandemic-related delays in the U.S. Census process last year.

Under Maine’s Constitution, a special Apportionment Commission created to remove some of the politics from redistricting is required to finalize new proposed district boundaries by June 1 based on the latest population estimates from the federal government. The Legislature must then either adopt the commission’s plan or one of its own making by June 11 or else the responsibility falls to Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court.

But because of delays attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau has yet to deliver those population estimates to states despite an April 1 deadline. As a result, the redistricting process in Maine and other states has been pushed beyond constitutional deadlines, further complicating a process that is already intensely partisan in some states.

On Monday, the state’s highest court granted a request from Democratic and Republican legislative leaders to extend those deadlines until after the new Census data has been delivered, likely in mid- to late-August.

The new timeline grants the Apportionment Commission 45 days after receipt of the Census data to submit redistricting plans for legislative and congressional seats. The Legislature then has 10 days to either enact the commission’s plan or an alternative by a supermajority, a two-thirds vote. If the Legislature fails to agree on new boundaries – as happened following the 1990 and 2000 censuses – the Supreme Judicial Court would step in.

In their decision Monday, justices on the Law Court cited an 1880 case involving who must administer oaths of office in which the court determined that “substantive constitutional imperatives” are more important than strictly following procedure.

“As in 1880, it cannot now be presumed that adherence to the deadlines in the Maine Constitution should prevail over the substance of appropriate reapportionment, as such adherence would make appropriate reapportionment impossible,” the justices wrote. “Rather, we should seek to preserve the overall intent of the constitutional apportionment process to the greatest extent possible, and that process prioritizes the Apportionment Commission’s submission of a plan based on ‘the latest’ Census data to the Legislature, followed by legislative consideration and possible action.”

Even so, the new deadlines will severely compress the time that the Maine Secretary of State’s Office has to program the new districts into the state’s voter registration system. The political parties also will have less time to line up candidates to run for the Legislature’s 186 seats before those candidates begin collecting signatures to qualify for the 2022 races.

“We deeply appreciate the Law Court’s redistricting decision,” Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said in a statement. “It makes the best of a bad situation that all states are facing in receiving the Census data so late. The timelines are incredibly tight for elections staff to implement, but we’re committed to doing our best to make it work.”

Redistricting is a critical part of the democratic system in the United States, with enormous political stakes.

Every decade, states use the latest Census data to redraw boundaries to ensure that each legislative district and congressional district in the state has roughly the same number of inhabitants. While some states assign the redistricting task to nonpartisan commissions, in others the party that controls the Legislature has enormous power to choose the boundary lines.

The resulting “gerrymandering” can lead to oddly shaped districts purposely drawn to the advantage of one party or, in some cases, to “redistrict out” elected officials. Both Democrats and Republicans also use the redistricting or reapportionment process to attempt to maximize their numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives based on the political leanings of voters in gerrymandered districts.

Maine has a hybrid system, of sorts, for establishing the boundaries for the 151 House districts, the 35 Senate districts and the state’s two seats in the U.S. House.

The 15-member Apportionment Commission is comprised of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent who serves as chairman. Eleven of the current commission members are sitting legislators.

A Republican on the committee, Rep. Josh Morris of Turner, applauded the court’s decision.

“The court made the correct decision in allowing the commission to move forward with our work. The data has been delayed through no fault of the Legislature and it is important that we have the opportunity to fulfill our constitutional duties,” Morris said in a statement. I look forward to working in a collaborative manner with my colleagues to reach a consensus on the State Legislative and Congressional district maps.”

Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash, also is pleased that the court extended the deadline.

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the redistricting process by delaying the census and making it difficult to get started on this important work. It’s why today’s ruling by the Maine Supreme Court is so important,” Jackson said in a statement Tuesday night. It upholds the right of the Maine Legislature to redraw the districts and gives us the much-needed time to do the work.”

The requirement of a supermajority vote in the Legislature to approve a plan further helps reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering except in instances when one party controls two-thirds of the legislative seats. While Democrats currently control both the Maine House and Senate, they do not have a supermajority of seats.

Despite that structure, Democrats and Republicans have struggled in recent redistricting processes to agree on lines for Maine’s 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts.

Southern and coastal towns are becoming more populous while many rural areas in central, northern and western Maine are either holding steady or shrinking in population. As a result, the boundary lines between the 1st and the 2nd District – and, therefore, the towns included in each – shift every 10 years as the reapportionment process attempts to evenly divide the number of residents in each district.

In 2010, Republicans attempted to move the island of North Haven – home to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree – from the 1st to the 2nd District. The closely divided 2nd District, meanwhile, has become an election battleground in recent years between the national Democratic and Republican parties.


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