Montana redistricters advance (maybe) final maps for public consideration

‘I think we’re closer than we were months ago’

By: - October 21, 2021 6:08 pm

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission meets on Thursday, October 21 (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission advanced on Thursday two final proposals to divide the state’s two congressional districts, sending the draft maps to public comment at a meeting later in October.

The panel initially set out Thursday to adopt a single map for public consideration, but dialed back its goals after hours of back-and-forth between the commission’s Republicans and Democrats on well-trod points of contention: which counties to split, if any, whether to consider a district’s potential competitiveness, what it means to “unduly” favor a party, which election data to look at and so on. However, the two maps that advanced this week, one from Democrats and one from Republicans, show that the commission — one of the last vestiges in the state of “forced bipartisanship,” as one commissioner put it — is close to reaching a decision.

“We think our maps are fair, they think their maps are fair,” said Commissioner Dan Stusek, a Republican. “They think our maps unduly favor a political party, and we think their maps unduly favor a political part. But I think we’re closer than we were months ago.”

Montana had two congressional districts from 1913 to 1993, by which time a declining population relegated the state to a single at-large district. The state regained its second district following the 2020 census, a historic moment for Montana and the catalyst of a political land-grab with several key counties in play. No Montana Democrat has served in the U.S. House since Pat Williams, whose tenure ended in 1997. Meanwhile, Republicans in the state celebrated major victories in 2020, sweeping statewide elections and expanding legislative majorities.

Both dividing lines advanced on Thursday more or less follow the Rocky Mountain front, with some exceptions. The map favored by Republican commissioners Stusek and Jeff Essmann slices Gallatin County, the state’s fastest growing county, but leaves Bozeman and towns to its west in the western district. Lewis and Clark County, which in the old days was in the Democratic-leaning western district, would go to the east, along with Great Falls and Cascade County. Each district would have at least two tribal reservations — members of indigenous communities in the state have been adamant in public comment that each district have at least one tribal community.

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The map favored by Democratic commissioners Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller is similar but “highly competitive,” a framing that their Republican colleagues rejected. This map includes Park, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties in the west, leaves Cascade in the east and splits populous Flathead County, leaving the more liberal town of Whitefish in the west. It, according to Miller, would still have an R+5 partisan lean in to the Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index. The western district would include the Flathead Reservation.

Republicans, meanwhile, don’t favor splitting conservative Flathead County, and said Whitefish belongs with its neighboring towns in the valley. Essmann called doing so “an effort to pretty blatantly place troublesome Republican voters in the eastern district.” 

The two proposals are the result of mountains of public comment and lengthy negotiations between the panel’s four partisan members, who earlier in the month put forth nine maps — four from the commission’s two Republicans, and five from the commission’s two Democrats — up for review. Dozens of members of the public weighed in on the nine proposals for hours earlier this week, highlighting what have proven to be reoccurring arguments throughout the 2020 redistricting process: Democratic commissioners (and their supporters) say they want at least one seat that either party could win, concentrating the state’s liberal southwestern population centers in one district, while the Republicans have honed in on maps that prioritize geographic functionality and adherence to a traditional view of Montana as a state with distinct eastern and western halves.

There’s also the matter of the state’s shifting population: boom in the west and stagnation in the east have meant that the old district lines (which included Cascade and Lewis and Clark and Gallatin all in the west) won’t pass the constitutional muster, as the two districts must have as close to equal population as is practicable. Republicans have taken this to mean that at least one of those counties need to go East.

“The reality is is that some counties are gonna have to go to the east, and it’s going to have to be a big one,” Essmann said. 

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The commissioners must follow a series of mandatory criteria, such as ensuring population equality, compactness, contiguity and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. But early in the process the body also adopted — though not without discord — “goal” criteria, which included provisions that no district may be drawn to unduly favor a political party and that the panel “may” consider competitiveness.

Competitiveness, Democrats and others argue, creates more responsive and engaged representatives, and a constituency that feels their vote matters. For example, Shelly Fyant, the chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, told DAC Chairwoman Maylinn Smith that she’d prefer a competitive western district with only one reservation than an uncompetitive district with two, Smith said Thursday.

Republicans and their allies have countered that competitiveness is subjective and strays too far from the redistricting requirements in the constitution.

“This whole digression this afternoon shows the fallacy of trying to draw competitive districts when you have a state as a whole that is trending in one direction,” Essmann said.

The commission will meet on October 30 to hear public testimony on the two maps, then vote on a tentative final proposal — a vote that Smith may have to split. As the Supreme Court-appointed non-partisan member of the commission, it’s her job to pick the map if the four partisans can’t agree.

That proposal will then go up for public review, and then the committee will adopt a final map. It needs to submit its plans by mid-November, when it will then move onto state legislative districts.

Smith finished Thursday’s meeting with some parting wisdom for the commission: “Every line we draw has political implications,” she said. “To think otherwise is either being naive or unrealistic”

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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.

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