Montana redistricters advance nine proposed congressional maps

East-west? North-south? Southwest and all the rest? None of the above?

By: - October 5, 2021 6:46 pm

Partisan members of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission advanced on Tuesday nine separate proposals for dividing Montana into two congressional districts,  a potentially significant step forward in shaping the state’s political future over the next decade.

The proposed maps — four from the two Republican commissioners, and five from the two Democrats — are for the most part modified versions of some of the 69 original maps submitted by the public in recent weeks, with each of the nine purporting to follow a set of mandatory and “goal” criteria that the panel adopted earlier in the process in different ways. The public will have the opportunity to provide comment specific to the selected maps at the commission’s next meeting on October 19, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that one of the nine brought forth Tuesday must be the eventual congressional district map.

“It doesn’t preclude somebody from saying, ‘I hate all … of these,'” said Maylinn Smith, an attorney and the state Supreme Court-appointed chair of the commission. 

That’s not entirely unlikely given the amount of contention pervading the process. Though this batch of commissioners has found consensus more often than many of their predecessors, each set of commissioners voted against the maps from the other party on Tuesday, requiring tie-breaking votes from Smith to advance all nine maps —an established precedent in a body where accusations of partisan gamesmanship are historically common.

Each of the maps meets some of the same basic criteria, such as a constitutionally mandated minimum population variance, but represent different philosophies for splitting the state in two, paying respect to different communities of interest and navigating county lines in different ways. Certain sticking points are evident, with Democrats placing a higher premium on creating competitive districts, a stated goal of the commission though not a mandatory one, and with Republicans more focused on geographic compactness.

Montana for decades has been relegated to a single at-large congressional district — one that almost always went for Republicans — but a fast-growing population meant the state regained a second district after the last U.S. Census. A game of political football began, with progressive causes seeing an opportunity to get a Democrat in Congress and the right seeing the chance to solidify its electoral control in the state.

The Republican maps generally split the state into an eastern and western district, chopping off portions of Gallatin and/or Cascade counties in order to ensure even populations. Explosive growth in the western part of the state means that north-south line dividing the state needs to move farther east, they contend.

One plan from Republican Commissioner Dan Stusek, for example, a modification of this publicly submitted map, is “as close to an east-west split, geographically, as you can get,” Stusek said. The map puts the majority of Gallatin and Cascade counties in the eastern district, splitting off about 7 percent of the population in each to the west. A map advanced by fellow Republican Jeff Essmann would put Pondera, Teton, Toole and Glacier counties in the west, and increase Native American representation in the western district. 

On the other hand, one map from Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller would follow all county lines exactly, though abandoning the east-west paradigm for one district that unites the state’s southwestern population centers and another with basically everything else. Another would roughly divide the state between a northern and a southern district, with portions of Yellowstone County, the state’s most populous, in each.

“It shows an important context,” she said. “Some people have opted east-west, some say north-south, others say those sorts of descriptions don’t really make sense.”

Smith said she wanted to see maps advanced Tuesday that represent a variety of options for dealing with the commission’s criteria, so any one of the maps — or potentially any of the hundreds of others the commission received, could be fair game.

And debate on what makes a map acceptable will continue, as was plain in this week’s meeting following public comment. How seriously to take the goal of creating competitive districts — and how to define competition — was a hot topic.

“If both districts have the same partisan distribution, one party will be precluded from the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice,” argued Nancy Leifer with the League of Women Voters.

What is political fairness or competitiveness?” countered Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, speaking as an individual. “Are both districts going to be competitive? Or just the new one for the Democrats?”

Smith said that there was nothing making the commissioners consider competitiveness as a standard. After all, it was just adopted as a goal.

“Do I think that competitive districts are better for the public?” she said. “Yes I do, I’m gonna be honest about that. But I’m not making the determination on competitiveness, I’ll tell you that right now.” 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.