Waterville is quickly becoming the focus of a special Legislative commission that is working under a tight deadline to redraw the boundaries for Maine’s two congressional districts.

Kennebec County’s second largest city with about 16,500 residents, Waterville is now included in Maine’s more southern and densely populated 1st U.S. Congressional District. Under a proposal by Democrats, both Waterville and nearby Augusta would be shifted into the more rural and northern 2nd District.

Republicans on the commission also have proposed moving Augusta to the 2nd Congressional District but want to keep Waterville in Maine’s 1st District.

The panel includes seven Republicans and seven Democrats. It needs to submit a recommendation next week to the full Legislature, which must then quickly approve the changes with a two-thirds majority vote or send the issue to the courts.

About 23,300 voters will be shifted from Maine’s 1st Congressional District to the 2nd so that the two districts will once again have a near-equal number of voters. The new U.S. Census showed Maine’s population growth over the last 10 years, just 2.7 percent statewide, was largely centered in the state’s already more populous 1st Congressional District, which now has 704,211 people compared with 658,148 in the 2nd District.

The panel is under a tight timeline caused by a delay in receiving U.S. Census data that’s been attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted a July ruling from the state’s Supreme Judicial Court that gave the commission until Sept. 27 to complete its work and make its recommendations to the full Legislature.

Those proposals will include new boundaries for Maine’s two congressional districts, as well as the state’s 35 Senate districts and 151 House districts. The new lines will come into play for the first time in a statewide primary election set for June 2022.

Respective maps for the new state House districts were expected to be released late Monday and another public hearing for those proposals was set for Wednesday at 1 p.m.

A Democratic representative from Augusta argued in favor moving Waterville to the 2nd District during a commission hearing Monday.

“We are quite different from communities in southern Maine,” Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, told the commission during a remote public hearing on the competing proposals Monday. “We are surrounded by forests, lakes and farmland. Our downtown is smaller, our neighboring towns are smaller.” Madigan said the city, which previously was part of the 2nd Congressional District, benefitted both economically and politically from the attention it gained during those years as candidates running for Congress paid closer attention to the city.

But others testifying Monday said the proposals by both parties looked like an attempt to gerrymander, or redraw the lines in a way that would provide the greatest partisan advantage for their side, instead of keeping communities of interest together with the least disruption to the current balance between the parties in the 2nd District.

Kate Carpenter, a Bath resident, said she was motivated to testify to the commission after sharing the two parties’ proposals with her 16-year-old son, who is taking an advanced placement class on U.S. history in high school. “And he’s like, that kind of looks like gerrymandering,” she said. “And I’m like, you’re right, that kind of does look like gerrymandering.”

She said they were specifically looking at the U.S. Congressional redistricting proposals that split towns in Kennebec County between the two districts. Kennebec is the only county in Maine that has towns in both districts and the commission agreed that it should remain the only county split between the districts.

Carpenter put forward a proposal that splits Kennebec County in a way that is more evenly divided geographically, keeping Augusta in the 1st District and moving Waterville to the 2nd.

Others testifying Monday said that if voters perceived gerrymandering in the congressional districts, they also may lose confidence that the commission will put forward a proposal that fairly redraws the lines for state legislative districts.

“It’s really important to maximize fair representation and not partisan advantage,” said Tricia Rubert-Nason, an Aroostook County resident, who also offered a proposal that redraws the lines in a way that would be easily discernible and understandable for most voters. Rubert-Nason said she wanted the commission to make a fair map. “That from my perspective ought to be the goal, not who can get the best partisan advantage,” she said.

The commission’s chairman, former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald Alexander, acknowledged the concerns of perceived gerrymandering but pushed back by saying the entire commission had agreed early in the process to focus on Kennebec County and a careful rebalancing there only as it pertains to the congressional districts.

“Had we had the license to do as they do in places like Wisconsin or Ohio or places like that we would probably see a lot of moves of other counties, for example making the 1st Congressional District and a sort of totally southern Maine district running Androscoggin (County) into the 1st District and (making) the 2nd District a much more of a northern, or upstate district the other way,” Alexander said. “But that’s not something that was within the parameters that the caucuses and the commission decided on. There may be allegations of partisanship or gerrymandering, but it’s within a pretty small range.”

The Legislature must approve any changes with a super majority vote of two-thirds of both chambers to ratify the changes. If it can’t reach that threshold, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will redraw the lines as it did in 1991 and 2001, when lawmakers gridlocked on the boundaries.

While the parties have put forward competing proposals, commission members are still negotiating in an effort to a find consensus recommendation that can garner the broad support it needs in the Legislature.

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