Short Relief: In the end, compromise on redistricting is good for GOP

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Although the parties have compromised and redrawn the lines defining Maine’s two congressional districts, there was an awful lot of recrimination that attended the process. While the issue isn’t likely to come up again any time soon, I thought I would review the underlying principles.

The U.S. Constitution requires that congressional representatives be apportioned according to the number of people living in each state, that each state get at least one representative, and that no House district be smaller than 30,000 people.

The framers decided that the first House of Representatives should be composed of 65 members. They allocated those seats to the original 14 states based on their estimate of what a census would show. But they didn’t expect that apportionment would last and they provided for change. They required that an “actual enumeration” be conducted within three years of the first meeting of Congress and every 10 years thereafter.

Congress increased the number of representatives as the country’s population grew and more states were added. As a result of the 1910 census, the number increased from 386 to 435. In the 1950s, the number was increased to 437 to accommodate the addition of Alaska and Hawaii, but then returned to 435.

Still, the country’s population continued to grow and to move around, necessitating reapportionment of representatives. Pursuant to the 2010 census, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania are expected to lose seats; while Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington are expected to gain seats.

Apportioning representatives entails several challenges, beginning with the problem of what to do about a state’s entitlement to a fraction of a representative. If you take the country’s “apportionment population” from the 2000 census – more than 281.4 million – and divide it by the authorized number of representatives – 435 – you get an “ideal district” size of just under 647,000. However, no state’s population was a whole number multiple of that size and never has been.

As a result, since ratification of the Constitution, Congress has employed several different methods to apportion representatives. These methods include the “fixed ratio” method, the “major fractions” method, and the current “equal proportions” method, which was adopted in 1941.

Under the equal proportions method, seats in the House of Representatives are allocated in rounds. In the first round, each state gets their one Constitutionally-guaranteed representative. In subsequent rounds, the remaining 385 seats are allocated to states in turns, on the basis of a priority that is related to each state’s population.

As a result, the size of a House district varies between states, and the size of a citizen’s share of a representative varies from state to state. Pursuant to the 2000 census and reapportionment, the smallest House district was the state of Wyoming, which contains just over 495,000 people. The largest was Montana at-large with more than 905,000. The 53 seats in California, were each about 639,000.

The virtue of this method is thought to be that it minimizes the relative difference a state experiences between two successive apportionments in terms of numbers of seats assigned, district population size, and individual voter share of a representative. The idea is that a change of one seat has less impact on the people of a large state like California than on the people of a small state like Wyoming.

Once seats in the House of Representatives have been apportioned, it is up to each state to decide how to define its districts, subject to a few limitations. The major limitation is that, within a state, congressional districts are supposed to be as equal in population as possible in order that, within the state, the value of each person’s vote for representative be as equal as possible.

The Maine Constitution specifies a process for apportioning state House and Senate districts. That process involves establishing a commission composed of 10 legislators drawn from the two parties with the largest caucuses and three members of the public. Our Constitution delegates to the Legislature the responsibility for dividing the state into voting districts for national elections, but doesn’t provide much guidance on how to do it.

The number, shape and size of Maine’s U.S. House districts have varied over time. When Maine first separated from Massachusetts, it had seven House districts. Later in the 1800s, it has had as many as eight. In 1961, Maine went from three districts to two. Republicans controlled the Legislature at the time and they drew the lines that have, more or less, remained in place.

The 1st District consists of the southeast corner of the state, including the coast from Kittery to Rockland, while the 2nd District consists of the rest of the state. Geographically, it is the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River.

In 1983, when Democrats controlled the Legislature, they instituted a new procedure for redistricting that was supposed to avoid partisan gerrymandering. After each census, a bipartisan commission develops a redistricting plan for the Legislature’s approval. The Legislature must approve the plan by a two-thirds majority and implement it in time for the second congressional election after the census. If the Legislature is unable to pass the plan, then the Supreme Judicial Court draws the lines. The Legislature was able to approve the commission’s plan in 1993, but not in 2003 when the court had to step in.

The 2010 census showed that Maine had grown in population and that the state’s congressional districts were out of balance. But Maine was not scheduled to do anything about it until the 2014 election. Two voters in Cape Elizabeth sued and a special panel of judges ordered Maine to redraw its districts in time for the 2012 election.

The Legislature convened a commission of seven Democrats, seven Republicans, and one independent. It produced several Democratic and Republican plans and a lot of sniping. Ultimately, in a party-line vote broken by the independent, the commission approved a Democratic plan that was not going to be approved by the majority Republican Legislature. The sniping continued.

Republicans could have used their majority to change the rules governing redistricting. The process wasn’t any great success. The existing district boundaries had no claim to moral supremacy. The purpose of congressional districts is to give their constituents a voice in “the Peoples’ House.” By that measure, Democrats have no greater claim to both Maine seats than Republicans when they only constitute a third of the state by registration. The boundaries were not etched in stone. To the contrary, the whole system was designed to change.

Nor was the process of drawing districts expected to be nonpartisan. The U.S. Constitution leaves it up to the states, and the Maine Constitution delegates the responsibility to the Legislature, which has the effect of making redistricting just another consequence of elections, albeit a somewhat structural one.

I didn’t believe that redistricting was worth a fight and I am glad that the parties have reached a compromise. In the first place, a Republican’s chances of winning the 2nd District are not so remote. The 2nd District is more conservative than the 1st District. Since 1961, it has been held by Republicans for 30 years and Democrats for 23 years (including the last nine). When the seat was last open, in 2002, and Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, first won it, he beat Republican Kevin Raye by only four percentage points, 52 percent to 48 percent.

In order to guarantee winning the 2nd District (if that’s possible), Republicans would have had to significantly redraw both districts. Doing so would have increased partisan antagonism, making it more difficult to get things done generally.

They are better served by continuing to use the offices and majorities they hold to pass laws and implement policies that improve Maine peoples’ lives, and winning them over that way.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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