Districting and Apportionment Commission meets for first time with series of unknowns still ahead

‘It’s been my goal for 40 years to draw another congressional district’

By: - May 25, 2021 6:17 pm

Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission formally began its task on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.(Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

The monumental process to decide how and where to draw Montana’s legislative and congressional districts began Tuesday afternoon with the initial meeting of the state Districting and Apportionment Commission, which, among other tasks, must decide during the coming months how to divide two Congressional seats for the first time in decades.

A years-long process awaits the commission, which won’t have the census data necessary to begin proposing specific maps until August at the earliest. Until then, it’s a matter of setting sideboards and anxiously awaiting more information from the feds.

And this year, there’s a new wrinkle. The state learned last month that it would regain the second congressional district it lost following the 1990 census, making Montana the only state relegated to a single at-large district to get a second seat back.

“This is my third go around as a commissioner. It’s been my goal for 40 years to draw another congressional district,” said Joe Lamson, one of two Democratic appointments to the redistricting panel, on Tuesday. 

This time around, that’s the top priority for the commission, which won’t begin addressing the shape of the state’s legislative districts until early next year. Candidates will begin formally running for the two Congressional seats in 2022 — some, including former Republican Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, have already declared their interest.

Historically, the dividing line between the districts ran north-to-south along the continental divide, creating a generally Democratic mountain district and a generally Republican prairie district.

First on the agenda for the commission is deciding which criteria to follow. These include mandatory requirements like compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and ensuring minimal population deviance between districts as well as discretionary criteria, like following existing political boundaries or keeping “communities of interest” such as tribal reservations intact.

Another possibility is to reconsider the practice of counting incarcerated people in Montana as residents of the communities where they’re imprisoned for the purposes of apportionment, a concept sometimes derided as “prison gerrymandering” as it can give disproportionate political power to regions with prisons and dilute representation in other areas. Although this is more relevant to legislative redistricting in Montana, indigenous advocacy organizations and several members of Montana’s tribal nations, which are disproportionately represented in the state’s prison facilities, encouraged the commission on Tuesday to keep this in mind, asking them to assign prison and jail populations to their last known addresses.

This system is not aligned with the principle of one person one vote,” testified Jacqueline De Léon, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. 

Around 1,200 indigenous, incarcerated people in Montana are counted in the Census away from their homes, she said.

But by Tuesday the commission didn’t have the confidence or information necessary to get into the nuts-and-bolts of that process. Maylinn Smith, an attorney who the Supreme Court appointed last year as the commission’s chair, fifth member and tie-breaking vote, said the commission will have a more fulsome discussion on those criteria at its next scheduled meeting in June and take a vote after hearing public feedback in July.

Other vagaries await, including whether the 90-day clock to submit a final apportionment plan to the Secretary of State actually begins to tick in August, when the Census releases “legacy format” summary data that requires additional processing, or in September, when the bureau says it will be able to release data in a “user-friendly” format.

Smith said her guess is that the format will change, and not the data itself, but also warned that pending litigation over a new Census tool meant to protect individual privacy by injecting “noise” into population data might delay or alter the releases.

This is the lawsuit that may derail when we get our census data,” she said. 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.