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Democrats' redistricting plan would be better for Maine

Maine's political culture has benefited from two congressional districts with plenty of swing voters.

The Maine Legislature comes back in special session this week, principally to vote on a state redistricting plan. Redistricting normally occurs after the national 10-year census if there are significant imbalances between Maine's two congressional districts.

This redistricting was ordered by the courts because the differential in voters between the two districts had increased significantly, mainly because of the continued loss of people in Maine's 2nd District.

Unlike the highly partisan process that is used in many other states -- a process that has contributed much to the extremism that now dominates U.S. politics -- Maine adopted a process that has encouraged a bipartisan approach. A commission of seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent chairman has been meeting over the past several months to try to reach agreement on a plan.

Each party came up with a proposal. The Democrats' would result in the least change from current district boundaries, moving only seven Kennebec County towns to make both districts equal in population.

The Republican plan is far more radical, changing the current east-west demarcation line one running north-south. The Republican plan would relocate more than 300,000 of the state's voters. The Republicans' rationale is obvious -- they believe the resulting 2nd District would be more likely to be a "Republican-leaning" district than the current one.

They would concede the 1st District to the Democrats, largely by moving Lewiston-Auburn, Maine's second-largest city and strongly Democratic, into the 1st District, which already includes Portland, also heavily Democratic.

In the end, the commission narrowly endorsed the Democrats' proposal, with the independent chair voting with the seven Democrats. That proposal, along with the Republican plan, goes to the Legislature this week, where a two-thirds vote is required for passage of a final version.

On the merits of the case, I strongly support the Democratic proposal. One of the aspects of Maine politics that has so far allowed us to avoid much of the extreme partisanship that is tearing apart our national fabric is the fact that both of our congressional districts have strong representation from unenrolled, or swing, voters, who are not committed to either party and tend to be a moderating influence on the political extremes.

As a result, the congressional candidates in either district have to be able to attract significant numbers of the unenrolled to prevail. This makes it possible for able candidates from either party, willing to lean to the center rather than tilt wildly to the left or right, to be elected. This fact is one of the things that makes Maine special and leads to quality candidates from both parties who serve us well.

Think back over the representatives that have served from both districts: Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe both got their electoral starts in the 2nd District. Democrat Tom Allen and Republican David Emery served in the 1st. All of them were partisan, but reasonable and pragmatic.

We give up this uniqueness at our peril. The Republican plan, by attempting to establish a permanent Republican majority in the 2nd District, would jeopardize Maine's political climate and could put us on the path to the same uber-partisanship that is currently tearing the country apart.

That is why the process established by the state Legislature for this redistricting is so important. Requiring a two-thirds vote in the Legislature means that we reach a solution acceptable to both parties.

If a two-thirds vote is not achieved on any plan, then the state Supreme Court makes the final decision.

In the press over the weekend, some Republican leaders suggested they might use their majority to change the current law requiring a two-thirds vote on this issue.

I certainly hope this is simply loose talk at a time of considerable tension, because such a change would be an unfortunate precedent to set.

It would also contradict the Republicans' vote to support a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would make the two-thirds vote on any redistricting a requirement of the state constitution.

Republican leadership in this first session of the Legislature has shown sound judgment in drawing the line between collaboration and partisanship. This is clearly a time for collaboration.

Let us come to a two-thirds vote solution, much as we did in this year's difficult budget process. Let that solution center on a plan that keeps the current district boundaries largely intact. Let us not give up one of the essentials that makes Maine a special place.