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Panel Begins Work to Redraw Maine's House and Senate District Boundaries
02/01/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Only two years ago, a 15-member panel spent several long afternoons at the State House trying to come up with a congressional redistricting plan that reflected changes in the state's population. Now, a new redistricting commission has reconvened, but this time they will looking at the boundaries of Maine's 151 House districts and 35 Senate districts to determine whether those lines need to be changed. A.J. Higgins has more.

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As a political indepependent, Bangor attorney Michael Friedman is the odd man out on the 15-member commission that will redraw the state's House and Senate boundary lines. But as he weighs the concerns of the seven Republicans and seven Democrats on the panel, he also has the advantage of serving as the commission chair and deciding vote.

As the redistricting commissioners gather to draw up some ground rules, Friedman says he already knows that 90 to 95 percent of the redistricting suggestions will be acceptable to members of both parties. For a moment, he wonders aloud if it wouldn't be a more efficient use of the panel's time to concentrate on the districts that both factions already agree are likely to be in dispute.

"I'd like to have everybody agree today, but I've been around the barn a few times and I know it's not going to happen," Friedman said.

Like the legislative process itself, the machinery of the redistricting commission will be given to fits and starts of activity as it weighs the impact that population changes in the state have had since 2003, when the last plan was approved. Since then, every district for the Maine House of Representatives has contained approximately 8,443 people in it, while every Senate district has been populated by approximately 36,426 people.

But Maine's population has not only grown, it's been redistributed. David Emery is a redistricting consultant for Republicans on the panel.

"Well, the population has shifted and it's not necessarily that towns have lost population, but other towns in the southern part of state have grown more rapidy," Emery says. "So the best way to describe it is that the center of gravity, the center of balance of the population, has shifted further and further south."

The trend that established some giant state Senate districts in northern Maine is expected to continue. For example, 20 years ago, Arrostook County had three state senators entirely within the county's borders. Today there are two left that are entirely within the county. Emery says that by the end of this process, there may only be one.

Whatever changes are recommended by both groups, Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant says it's unlikely that there will be any signs of gerrymandering in the process, a strategy that attempts carve out districts to contruct a preordained political profile.

"We have a lot of protections against that requiring a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, and then if that doesn't work, having the court decide things," Grant says. "And they're usually a more measured group that's not really looking to a political advantage as a reason for drawing the map."

Thus far, the commission has been able to reach unanimous approval on important issues, including developing guidelines for redrawing boundaries based on constitutional, federal law, and historical precedent.


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