A sailboat moves across windy Casco Bay at sunset, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, off Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s redistricting panel will release initial drafts of its congressional and state Senate maps on Thursday with just 10 days until its court-mandated deadline and much more work left to do after more than a month doing little public-facing work.

It leaves a relatively short window for public comment with the next hearing set for Monday, just a week before the hard deadline. The commission will likely have to hold another hearing later in the week to receive feedback on draft maps for Maine’s 151 House districts, which are not expected to be released on Thursday.

The bipartisan commission was initially bound by the state’s constitution to finish maps by June. But delays in the delivery of 2020 census results made that deadline impossible. At the request of legislative leaders from both parties, Maine’s high court agreed to extend the commission’s deadline, giving it 45 days after the release of census data to draft maps.

The population data was released on Aug. 12, giving the commission a deadline of Sept. 27. The group is now set to share its first maps with the public on Thursday — 35 days into the 45-day period it was allocated. Only congressional, Senate and county commissioner maps are set to be released on Thursday, while new maps for House districts will come later.

After the commission’s deadline, the Legislature has 10 days to approve maps, which require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers. If lawmakers cannot reach an agreement, then the issue is turned over to Maine’s high court, where justices would have 35 days to draw the maps with input from the public.

There are tight deadlines throughout the process because Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office requested that maps be finalized by Nov. 15 so that elections staff can prepare for candidates to begin collecting signatures in 2022.

Maine’s population center shifted southward over the past decade, with Cumberland and York counties accounting for most of the state’s population growth. Maps must be redrawn to try to equalize populations between districts.

At the congressional level, both parties agreed that changes should involve moving towns within Kennebec County. The political ramifications are likely to be relatively small, although the swing 2nd Congressional District may become marginally more Democratic.

But there are more ways to redraw Maine’s 35 state Senate seats and 151 House districts. New legislative districts do not have to be perfectly equal in population, but must be drawn such that every district is within five percent of the median population. Districts are also supposed to be compact and cross as few municipal boundaries as possible.

It is a positive step for the commission to plan hearings for public feedback, said Will Hayward, advocacy program coordinator for the League of Women Voters Maine, but he noted that the timeframe is short.

He pointed to state House districts, which are most likely to divide towns, as an example where locals might want to provide feedback on the best way to draw boundaries while keeping historical or marginalized communities together.

“It will be a real challenge for the commission to consider and meaningfully incorporate any public feedback on the maps in such a short window,” Hayward said.