Follow-Up: Maine unicameral
Maine should transition to a unicameral legislature - here’s how.
This week in the Portland Press Herald, I endorsed the concept of Maine implementing a unicameral legislature, in contrast to its current bicameral system. Since it was in the context of a proposed commission to examine changes to Maine’s constitution, I didn’t delve much into the nitty-gritty of the details of the single chamber, how it would work, and what it would be called. All of that could be developed in further detail by the commission itself or by future statutes and rules governing the operation of the unicameral, but I do have a few thoughts of my own.
First, it should be midway in size between the current Maine House, which has 151 members, and the Maine Senate, which has just 35. That keeps the districts of a reasonable size (unlike, say, the next-door New Hampshire House, which has 400 members), keeping legislators close and responsive to their constituents. It also means that current legislators from either chamber would be comfortable running for office in the new legislature: the districts would be twice the size of a current House district, while they’d be about half the size of a current Senate district. Indeed, this switch for House members would be easier than the current switch of running for the Maine Senate is: a Senate district is more than four times larger than a House district. For the sake of argument, let’s put the exact size at 75 members, although anywhere in the 70-75 range would be reasonable. Besides the issue of representation, another reason to make the unicameral larger than the current Senate is that then 151 House members don’t suddenly face the prospect of forced retirement. Indeed, almost 40% of current legislators could win seats in this new body. Given that Maine already has legislative term limits, this kind of turnover would be high, but not high as as it might be in a state without them.
Now, another question is what to call this new legislative body. I say we keep it as the Maine Senate - even though they’d probably have to meet in what is now the Maine House chamber for logistical reasons. One reason for this is that it appeals to politician’s egos: the Senate is usually considered the higher chamber in American democracy; therefore the title is more appealing. This means that current Senators who choose to run in the new chamber would be keeping their current title, while current Representatives would receive a free upgrade.
The new Maine Senate should be more like the current U.S. Senate than the current Maine Legislature: Senators should be elected to four-year terms, rather than two, with only half the chamber up for election in any given cycle. The challenge with this is that, unlike with the U.S. Senate, that would mean that one group of seats is always chosen in a Presidential election year while the other group is always chosen in midterm election years. This would have interesting political side effects, but since Maine has relatively high voter turnout every year, it wouldn’t be debilitating. It also wouldn’t be unprecedented: thirty states have four year terms for state Senators, so it works perfectly fine all over the country. Still, to be fair, the two classes should be evenly distributed throughout the state, in rural, suburban, and urban areas alike, so that it doesn’t heavily favor one party or the other.
If the new Maine Senate is to have term limits - which it probably will, since they’ve been in place for Maine legislators for decades now - they should probably be for three terms, or twelve years total. That gives each Senator the chance to run for re-election twice, which is a good balance. Keeping the new chamber to the current eight years allowed in each chamber would mean just one re-election campaign, which is too little. Allowing members of the new Maine Senate to serve a total of sixteen years, or four terms, would be equal to the total current limit on legislative service, but is probably a bit too long - so let’s split the difference at twelve.
Then, of course, we must consider the actual mechanics of transitioning to this new system. The logical course to follow is to implement it following a new redistricting cycle, allowing the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission to draw new districts for the new chamber. This would be especially logical right now, since we just underwent a redistricting cycle in 2020. Implementing the new unicameral legislature in 2032, following the 2030 census, would give all currently serving politicians plenty of time to make plans. It would also give the bipartisan commission formulating the details plenty of time to work them out, and allow the state the time to vote on the constitutional amendment that would be required.
All of this is, of course, mainly hypothetical. The Maine Legislature, and the two parties, are unlikely in the extreme to completely rewrite the structure of Maine democracy. Still, it’s worth taking some time to delve into the details of how exactly all this might work on a practical level, and to point out that it’s entirely feasible to implement in a way that won’t turn state government upside down overnight.
You may follow Jim on Twitter or Facebook. He is also a weekly political columnist for the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest daily newspaper.