Anna Kellar

After a frantic six weeks of map drawing, negotiation, and legislative votes, Maine has new congressional and legislative district maps for the next 10 years.

As a result, Maine now has new districts that are not gerrymandered by one party and that will give us a Legislature that generally reflects the political balance of the state.

Still, that doesn’t mean this year’s redistricting process fully served the voters of Maine.

Some of the issues with this year’s process were unavoidable: the delayed census data release meant a months-long process was compressed to 45 days. Every step from map-drawing to negotiation to public hearings had to be compressed. It is impressive that the Apportionment Commission managed to produce maps at all that reflected agreement between the parties.

However, the process also revealed flaws in the very design of Maine’s commission. Since all maps require two-thirds votes in the Legislature, and 14 out of the 15 members are appointed by Democratic and Republican legislative leadership, protecting incumbent politicians appeared to take precedence over almost everything other than the bare minimal legal requirements.

This was apparent in the commission’s public deliberations: when asked why a change had been made to the State House map before a vote Sept. 24, one of the party consultants replied that it was a “quid pro quo” between the parties to keep two incumbents in their districts. Public records of legislator addresses also support this; virtually no incumbents eligible to run again in 2022 appear to have been drawn together.

It is an unwritten rule of bipartisan redistricting: to get an agreement between the parties, you need to keep as many legislators as possible in seats they can expect to win. This is not an official criterion the commission or any court is directed to consider, yet it appears to govern much of the negotiation process.

This year’s process also severely curtailed the window for public comment. After months waiting for census data, and weeks anticipating of map releases, the public had less than 72 hours to give comment between the release of a consensus State House map and an initial commission vote to approve the map. The consensus state Senate map never had a public hearing at all; it was released on the commission’s final day and voted on without any public comment period.

In short, despite the best intentions of those serving on the commission, Maine’s process ensures that politicians pick their voters and public input can be a mere afterthought.

To the commission’s credit, after initial delays, it did work diligently to release higher quality maps and post the public comment it did receive. In the three-day window that public comment was accepted for State House maps, the commission received over 70 pages of comments. And on its final day of work, the commission did make two changes to its House map to reflect community concerns. However, this extremely tight timeline raises questions of what public input wasn’t considered fully or not submitted in time. Those most connected to the political process were also most likely to weigh in during this narrow window; it is possible that communities most often excluded from the political process also missed the chance to have their voices heard.

Taken together, Maine’s 2021 redistricting experience shows that the state’s process is far from the worst in the county, yet we see significant opportunities for improvement. The commission’s public visibility should be expanded, public hearings should be widely publicized, and historically marginalized communities should be proactively invited to participate in the process. The Apportionment Commission should have a dedicated website with detailed and interactive maps, not an obscure tab on the Legislature’s website with maps of variable quality and detail. Reasonable time for consideration of public comment should be prioritized in the next redistricting cycle.

There are also broader reforms to consider. Several states have implemented independent redistricting commissions, which exclude politicians altogether and entrust map drawing to citizens. Ultimately, the best solution may be to think even bigger: many scholars believe that large, multi-member districts under a proportional representation system are the best way to address both partisan gerrymandering and to mitigate the impulse to protect incumbents from competition. These are long-term discussions, but ones worth having.

Ultimately, Maine should not be ashamed of its redistricting process, but it should not celebrate it as the pinnacle of democracy and representation either. By entrusting map drawing to politicians and limiting time for public feedback, there is a question as to how well the new district lines truly serve the public interest. As a state that avoids the worst of redistricting, we should continue to ask ourselves how we can do better.

Anna Kellar of Portland is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine.


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