Competitive districts and political boundaries up for debate in proposed redistricting criteria

Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission will take action on proposed rules in July

By: - June 10, 2021 7:43 pm

An old map of the state of Montana in the USA scanned from a XIX century original .

Members of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission have brought forth two proposals for criteria that will govern how the state draws lines separating its legislative and congressional districts, a significant task that will play out over the coming 18 months.

The pair of proposals, one submitted by the commission’s two Republicans and the other from two Democrats, overlap in their broad strokes — after all, federal law and the Constitution lay out some districting requirements in plain language. But they differ in the weeds, showing divergent philosophies of political representation that will compete as the commission works towards adopting a set of criteria at its next meeting in July.

Either way, the five-member commission’s top priority is to draw Montana’s two congressional districts for the first time in decades, as it has longer to draw state legislative maps. The state, no longer relegated to a single at-large district, is subject to a 90-day clock to submit maps for the two districts to the Secretary of State that begins ticking later in the year, when the U.S. Census Bureau releases a final batch of population data. Redistricting criteria such as whether to mandate keeping existing political subdivisions intact and how much population deviation to allow will when adopted inform what those two Congressional districts — and, eventually, the dozens of state legislative districts — look like and who’s included.

“We want to have objective rules that are clear and let the chips fall where they may,” said Jeff Essmann, a former lawmaker and one-time state GOP chair who serves as one of the commission’s two Republicans, following the commission’s second meeting Thursday.

Redistricting criteria are divided into two categories: mandatory and discretionary. The commission must follow whatever mandatory criteria it adopts, but has the option to follow discretionary criteria as it sees fit.

The first proposal for congressional districting criteria comes from the commission’s two Republicans, Essmann and Dan Stusek. In alignment with federal law, they propose to mandate that the state’s two districts are “as equal in population as is practicable,” comply with the Voting Rights Act, are compact and are contiguous, meaning that “nobody should have to drive out of the district they’re seeking to represent to go talk to a constituent in another part of the district,” Essmann said.

These mandatory criteria track largely with the proposal from the two Democratic commissioners, Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller. However, Essmann and Stusek also proposed a mandatory criterion that congressional boundaries “shall coincide with political subdivisions of the state and federal reservations to the greatest extent possible,” something Essmann said would bring Montana in alignment with other states that have required districts to align with existing political boundaries.

“Montana has been in a distinct minority with respect to ignoring political subdivisions,” Essmann said. 

But Lamson, a veteran of the redistricting process in Montana, said that would buck the commission’s established practice.

“It has been discretionary for a variety of reasons — counties are not set up based on population,” Lamson said. “There’s good reason — especially in Montana where you have 56 counties — that you have some flexibility there.”

Jacqueline De Léon, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund who testified on the two plans, agreed with Lamson, saying that tribes are often divided between counties or other political subdivisions.

The Democratic proposal suggests that following political boundaries be treated as a discretionary criterion. Other discretionary criteria in that plan include keeping communities of interest, such as “Indian reservations, urban interests, suburban interests, rural interests, neighborhoods, trade areas,” and more intact, language that’s also present in the Republican proposal. Both plans also suggest that a proposed map “must not have the effect of unduly favoring or disfavoring any political party.”

Miller and Lamson also pay special attention to the concept of competitiveness, proposing that “a plan must have a reasonable share of competitive districts capable of being won by either party.”

The idea that districts are not fair strikes at the heart of representation,” Miller said.

But Essmann and Stusek argued that competitiveness was a subjective standard — and that ensuring that a certain district is competitive may mean drawing maps that don’t necessarily reflect the political desires of the voters.

“The Democrats are seeking certain outcomes,” Essmann said after the meeting. “They’re trying to achieve a political goal. We’re trying to have districts that make sense.”

Montana had two congressional districts until the 1990 census. For essentially that entire time, the districts were separated along the Continental Divide, with the western district tending to elect Democrats — most recently Pat Williams, whose term in that district ended in 1993 — and the eastern district tending to elect Republicans.

The two proposals also differ in their handling of legislative districts. Although the commission isn’t likely to begin drawing legislative maps until 2022, it will approve mandatory and discretionary criteria for both congressional and legislative districts come its next meeting in July.

Again, Essmann and Stusek propose to mandate that legislative maps follow to the extent possible existing political boundaries, while the Democratic proposal suggests that as a discretionary criterion. The Republicans also suggest that population variance between districts be capped at plus-or-minus one percent, a requirement that Lamson and others argued would be too restrictive, especially given the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic posed to census data collection.

Too strict of criteria is not neutral,” De Léon commented. 

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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.