No More Gerrymanders: Transforming Maine into One At-Large Super District

by Sheahan Virgin, Super Districts // Published August 23, 2011
Maine Colorful Boats

Highlights

  • Redistricting, which occurs every ten years, ensures political lines reflect population changes and that each district has approximately the same number of residents per seat.
  • Lawmakers in Maine are fiercely debating how to redraw the boundaries of the state's two U.S. congressional districts in the wake of the 2010 Census. Both political parties seek new maps favorable to their candidates, a process that could affect not only the current 2-0 Democratic U.S. House majority, but possibly also an Electoral College vote at the presidential level. According to state law, the 15-member bipartisan Legislative Apportionment Committee draws new boundaries. Both chambers of the state legislature must approve a plan by a two-thirds vote before it becomes law.
  • The controversies associated with redistricting are products of our winner-take-all elections, in which 50.01% of voters can elect 100% of representation. Winner-take-all rules marginalize like-minded voters of a political minority no matter their relative numerical strength, thereby depressing turnout and providing inadequate representation.
  • As part of an ongoing project, FairVote has produced a "super district" map designed for election with a proportional voting system. Our proportional plan upholds U.S. Supreme Court rulings on apportionment while guaranteeing competitive voter choice and fairer representation. Because Maine has only two congressional seats, our efforts to bring truly fair representation to the state are somewhat limited. Nevertheless, our plan would end gerrymandering and would result in more nuanced voter choice than possible under the current winner-take-all system.
  • Proportional voting plans are legal under the U.S. Constitution, but would require Congress to repeal a 1967 law mandating single-member districts.

 

The Political Context in Maine

Maine and the 2010 Census: From 2000 to 2010, Maine's population grew slightly, from 1.27 million to 1.33 million, for an increase of 4.2%. This rate, while below the national average of 9.7%, nevertheless outperformed the Northeast's 3.2%, with only New Hampshire and Connecticut besting the state in the region. Maine emerged from the reapportionment process having neither lost nor gained any congressional seats.

As is inevitable, the last decade has seen the populations of the two districts fall out equilibrium; the 2010 Census showed the more populous First District having 668,515 residents and the Second 659,846, a difference of 8,669. Due to Supreme Court rulings that require a state's congressional districts to be equal in population, redistricting is necessary to bring the districts back into balance.

Courts Order Accelerated Redistricting Timetable: Although state law stipulates the legislature need not produce new maps until 2013, plaintiffs, purportedly with Republican backing, arguing that population discrepancies between the districts necessitated changes in time for the 2012 elections, as is the norm around the country. In June, the U.S. District Court in Portland agreed and ordered the redistricting to occur this year.

State Democrats, satisfied with current congressional districts and having a stake in maintaining the present 2-0 Democratic majority, opposed the court's decision. The GOP welcomed the ruling as a significant boost to their electoral prospects at the congressional level. The state legislature has until September 30 to complete the task; Governor Paul LePage (R) has scheduled a special legislative session to begin on September 27, and the Maine Legislature has formed a bipartisan commission based on existing state law.

In 2003, redistricting proved a partisan affair with the state legislature unable to achieve the required two-thirds approval of both chambers for any proposed map, an impasse that forcing action by the Maine Supreme Court. The looming 2011 battle promises to be equally acrimonious as both parties jockey for position.

Partisan Factors - Republican Proposal Calls for Sweeping Changes: Although the GOP has enjoyed continued success at the U.S. Senate level and, in 2010, took over the governor's mansion and both chambers of the legislature, it has not elected its candidates to the U.S. House since 1994. Since 1987, Democrats have held the First District for all but two years (1995-1997), while in the Second, Republican ascendancy ended in 1995 when voters sent then-Rep. Olympia Snowe to the Senate.

Republicans, now controlling the state capitol for the first time in nearly a half century, are hoping to exercise their newfound power over the redistricting process. Despite the modest population differences between the state's two congressional districts, the GOP has proposed an opportunistic map for U.S. House elections that would greatly redraft present boundaries, resulting in the displacement of some 360,000 voters from one district to the other, or nearly one-fourth of the state's population.

The Republican plan would draw incumbent Democrat Chellie Pingree, who lives in North Haven and whose base is Knox County, out of the First District and into the Second. Such a move would leave Pingree with two objectionable choices: either engage her Democratic colleague, the Second's Mike Michaud, in a Democratic Primary or stay in the First (tradition, not law, stipulates that a U.S. House representative should live in the district in which she runs), but renounce her established network of Knox County voters. Moreover, State Senator Kevin Raye, the Republican President of the Maine Senate who is expected to challenge Michaud next year, would benefit considerably from a redrawn, more conservative Second District.

Some Democrats have argued that the GOP, in attempting to convert two Democratic seats into a safe-Democratic First District and a lean-Republican Second District, has designs on the state's Electoral College vote in presidential elections. Unlike most states, Maine does not employ a statewide winner-take-all system of electoral vote allocation. Joined by Nebraska, it awards one electoral vote for each congressional district won and two electoral votes for winning the state. If the Second District became more conservative because of a gerrymander, the Republican nominee for president could win potentially one electoral vote.

Democrats have countered the Republican plan with a proposal that would alter the current boundaries only marginally, moving 4,300 voters in the town of Vassalboro from the First District to the Second. The plan would likely result in the following: both seats would retain their Democratic advantage, Pingree would maintain her Knox Country base in the First District, and the electoral votes of both districts would remain squarely in national Democratic hands. The GOP has lambasted the map as a "status quo proposal" intended to protect Democratic officeholders, not to make the state competitive.

While some observers believe that a statue requiring a two-thirds majority of both chambers to pass any new map might encourage compromise between the entrenched parties, there have been rumors that Republicans are considering scrapping the statue for a simple majority rule. Such a development, if truly being considered, would permit the GOP to push through a controversial, partisan plan over Democratic protestations. 

 

FairVote's Super District Alternative

Image:  Maine's Current Congressional Districts (left) and the Super District Alternative (right)

Time for an Honest, Proportional, and Fair System: These controversies demonstrate the way in which the current system is inadequate: it fails not only to represent accurately the people of Maine, but reduces voters to mere pawns in a grand political game designed to benefit party elites rather than the people. Even in states unaffected by reapportionment, there is the impulse to engage in gerrymandering and other highly undemocratic maneuvering.

FairVote's solution to these problems, endemic to the current system, is to consolidate both of Maine's single-member districts into one at-large, multi-seat super district employing proportional allocation. If Maine were to become a single super district, the state as a whole would simply elect two representatives, with 664,180 people represented per seat and, at a minimum, 33.34% of the vote (called the threshold of exclusion) necessary for a candidate to win a seat. Importantly, the new proportional, multi-seat system would produce a congressional delegation more reflective of popular opinion, infusing every voice with significance and empowering previously discouraged voters.

Although FairVote prefers super districts with at least three seats, in order to allow for a greater balance of representation, ending single-member congressional districting in Maine still has clear advantages in that it would more fairly reflect the state.

Partisan Analysis of FairVote's Super District Alternative: In a proportional system, a state as closely divided as Maine, with a statewide partisan index of 55.0% Democratic, would be unlikely to produce a congressional delegation uniformly from one party. With winner-take-all, single-member districts eliminated, the Democratic Party would no longer have 'blue barricades' to shield their candidates from the state electorate's substantial contingent of Republican voters, causing their monopoly of Maine's U.S. House seats to collapse.

Voting Rights Analysis of FairVote's Super District Alternative: Because Maine's voting age population remains 95.6% White, voting rights issues of accurate representation for racial minorities do not apply. At present, Blacks comprise only 0.9% of the voting age population and Latinos 1.0%, both being some 32 points beneath the minimum threshold of support to win one seat.

 



Super Districts



Number of Seats



Population
per Seat



Threshold to Win One Seat



Partisan Index



Projected
Party Split



Districts Creating
Super District

 

 

at large

 

 

2

 

664,180

 

33.34%

 

55.0% (D)

 

1 Dem, 1 Rep
(possibly 1 independent)

 

1, 2


Taking the Gerrymander out of Maine
:
To continue their domination of Maine's U.S. House races, Democratic candidates would have to win at least 66.67 percent statewide, an aggregate total 11 points above the partisan index. With their 45.0% partisan index, Republicans would gain new relevance, strongly positioned to win in the Second District. Nevertheless, in a state where independent voters are particularly strong (Maine had an independent governor from 1995 to 2003), neither party could afford to take winning for granted, as independents could pick off a seat in the event of ideological overreach or candidate inadequacy by one or both of the major parties.

While the Republican redistricting proposal might result in a similar projected party split (D-1, R-1), FairVote's multi-seat super district achieves the same ends while employing different and distinctly more democratic means. Neither party would have the power to gerrymander safe single-member districts that distribute their voters were needed and the opposition's voters where convenient. Rather than a GOP proposal neglecting Republican voters in the First and Democratic voters in the Second or a Democratic proposal discounting Republican voters in both districts, FairVote's plan would erect a system under which all of Maine's voters would matter, equally.

In the spirit of Maine's state slogan, this is the way democracy should be.