One side tried to palm it off as a victory – “Democrats praise reapportionment commission vote” – but there was no putting a happy face on the ugly truth: Congressional redistricting in Maine is mired in partisan quicksand. If the two parties were any farther from a compromise, one of them would be in Massachusetts.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. The task at hand is to move the line separating the state’s two congressional districts enough to equalize the number of residents in each.

The 2010 census revealed that population shifts had left the 1st District with 8,667 more people than the 2nd District. A 15-member reapportionment commission consisting of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and an independent chairman was assigned the task of devising a plan to correct the imbalance.

Unfortunately, the commission couldn’t come up with a consensus plan and had to choose between competing plans served up by Republicans and Democrats. When a vote was taken Tuesday – surprise, surprise! – Republican members voted for the Republican plan and Democrats voted for the Democratic plan. Independent Michael Friedman of Bangor broke the tie by siding with the Democrats.

“I couldn’t get the donkey and the elephant to move a stitch, even though I tried,” he said.

SIMPLER PLAN

Friedman said he opted for the Democrats’ plan because it was the simpler proposal and narrowed the population discrepancy to one person.

That plan now goes to the Legislature, which will convene in special session on Sept. 27 to finalize a new congressional map – or try to finalize a congressional map. Under state law, a two-thirds majority is required to approve new congressional districts, and that level of consensus looks like a long shot, to say the least.

Without a two-thirds vote – or a statutory overhaul that would eliminate the two-thirds requirement and allow Republicans to pass their own plan with a simple majority – the task of redistricting will fall to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

There’s nothing mysterious about the disagreement here. Democrats like the districts the way they are – both districts are represented by Democrats in Congress – and would like the new configuration to look as much like the current makeup as possible. Republicans, lo and behold, would like nothing better than to design at least one of the districts in a way that gives them a fighting chance to send one of their own to Washington in 2012.

The Democratic representative with the target on his back, as it happens, is 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud. Every plan put forward by Republicans – and vigorously opposed by Democrats – has been devised with an eye toward creating a Republican majority in the 2nd District.

There’s nothing illegal, or even unethical, about this process. Legislatures all across America do it; in some states district lines are “gerrymandered” to group voters not only by political affiliation but by racial, ethnic and religious identity. The boundaries for districts can become so confusing that voters need a map to find their polling place on Election Day.

JUDGES MAY BE BETTER

It hasn’t come to that in Maine, but the political parties seem determined to make the process as complicated as they can. As much as we’ve pleaded with the parties to compromise and avoid handing off reapportionment to the court, we’re beginning to wonder if Mainers might not be better off with their fate in the hands of judges rather than practicing politicians.

We’re not there yet, but the political process so far has not been encouraging.

What’s so frustrating about all this is not so much that politicians would look for political advantage – they are politicians, after all – but that it looks for all the world as if they are looking for nothing but political advantage.

We haven’t heard one word of discussion about what’s best for the people of Maine in general, or the residents of these congressional districts in particular.

There’s been no philosophical debate, for example, about what a congressional district should be.

Should a district be structured as a community, defined by common purpose and shared concerns? Should it reflect some level of diversity, taking into account the competing interests of various groups and individuals within its borders?

Or is a congressional district nothing more than a purely political subdivision designed to produce a congressperson from one party or the other, as Republicans and Democrats seem to have concluded?

Our political leaders haven’t raised such questions and probably never will in this era of gamesmanship and gridlock. But serious debate aside, we can still hope, and we do, for a sincere attempt at compromise.