Redistricting should be done by a non-partisan commission
By Matthew Gagnon
Maine’s Apportionment Commission has been on a deadline, and for a while things weren’t looking good. They had until Sept. 27 to submit their recommendations regarding the redistricting of electoral districts in Maine to the Legislature for consideration. If they had been unable to meet that deadline, the new district maps would have ended up being drawn by the courts.
Fortunately, a deal seems to have been struck at the last minute, rendering that possibility moot.
Finding that compromise on the maps was not easy. To begin with, the process in Maine, like so many other states, is partisan in nature. Republicans and Democrats are negotiating with each other to try to find new district lines that are acceptable to both, yet each of them is also seeking to find some kind of angle that gives them political gain at the same time.
Democrats, for instance, would love to find a way to put more Democratic voters in the 2nd Congressional District to aid incumbent — and imperiled — U.S. Rep. Jared Golden. Given the partisan makeup of his district (six points tilted toward Republicans compared to the country as a whole), Golden is, on most maps, the most vulnerable incumbent House Democrat in the country.
In addition, they would love to solidify their hold on the Maine Legislature and guarantee that they keep control of both the Maine House and the Maine Senate for generations to come.
Republicans, by contrast, want to do the exact opposite. They would love more conservative voters to be dumped in Golden’s district, and they need to find a way to make enough competitive districts that they have a realistic hope of taking back both legislative chambers in Augusta. In the absence of that, they at the very least want to prevent the Democrats from getting what they want.
Complicating matters is the fact that a two-thirds vote will be necessary for any kind of plan to be approved by the Legislature. That means that try as they might, neither side is going to be able to run roughshod over the other in the negotiations if they want something to ultimately pass.
In other words, they are trying to find a way of screwing each other, while getting their opposite numbers to thank them for the screw job.
Making things even more troublesome is the esoteric and impossibly complex process of selecting maps in the first place. According to Maine Public, David Emery, who has been the go-to man for Republican redistricting efforts for as long as anyone can remember, recently noted that “there are more than 1,100 different congressional map combinations that could be drawn in Kennebec County alone.” That, of course, says nothing about other permutations and combinations that could be created from Maine’s 15 other counties.
I will admit, just for the record, that no matter how dysfunctional, Maine’s system for redistricting is, it is not that bad. Indeed, while there are always food fights over maps, in the end, our state has avoided some of the absurd abnormalities seen in other states.
No doubt we have all heard the term “gerrymandering” before. The term originates from an 1812 map signed by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry which created a preposterous map that was favorable to the Democratic-Republicans, in which one district was shaped like a salamander.
In 33 states, state legislatures are the dominant player in the redistricting process, and thus make gerrymandering shenanigans more likely. Some states, like California, New Jersey and Michigan, use a nonpartisan commission to draw the lines. Some commissions are made up entirely of non-politicians, while some do allow members to hold elective office. And, of course, courts play an important role when dysfunction rules.
Regardless of what is currently done or not done anywhere in the United States, I think most of us — of all political stripes — can agree that we are sick and tired of games being played by politicians to advantage themselves, to our detriment. We are similarly tired of partisanship infecting the most important parts of our democracy. We want our representation to be geographically and culturally logical and have nothing at all to do with what the political class wants.
Thus, in Maine, and indeed everywhere, it is well past time to reform the redistricting process to be as neutral and non-partisan as humanly possible. Perhaps that is through non-partisan commissions. Perhaps there are other methods. But whatever it is we do, the next time we redraw the lines, we should do it fairly, and free from political games.
A guy can dream, right?
Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.