Redistricting commission amends tentative map ahead of public hearing next week

By: - December 16, 2022 5:59 pm

A tentatively adopted legislative map, prior to amendments, displayed outside a public hearing held at the Capitol on Dec. 10, 2022. (Photo by Nicole Girten)

With the clock ticking to deliver a final legislative map to the legislature, redistricting commissioners made amendments Thursday to the tentatively approved House districts voted on in early December.

The 100 House districts in the current map break down into 56 Republican districts, 35 Democrat ones, and competitive seats split five to four, Democrat and Republican, respectively.

The map is not final, but Chair of the Districting and Apportionment Commission Maylinn Smith she doesn’t envision future changes will impact the number of seats.

The map used as a starting point was seen as a compromise, one proposed by Democrats but closely resembling one put forward by Republicans.

However, Thursday as commissioners considered amendments, partisan debate reignited among the Republicans and Democrats on the commission.

In particular, the four commissioners disagreed about whether to split Belgrade from Bozeman — Republicans pushed for the break — and whether to separate Whitefish from Columbia Falls — Democrats argued to keep them together.

Chair Smith has often had to be the tie breaking vote on the commission given the partisan divide, and she was so again Thursday. She voted with Republicans in Belgrade and with Democrats in Whitefish and Missoula.

Neither party escaped unscathed. Democrats argued the Republican amendments aimed to give them undue advantage, and they called foul with an 11th hour map submission Wednesday night. But Republicans said they were responding to public comment, and the adopted map actually favored Democrats.

The commission also voted on amendments to the map that didn’t impact the partisan nature of the districts in Cascade County, Jefferson County and parts of eastern Montana. Commissioners considered requests by county clerks to amend the map to, say, follow school district lines for consistency.

Nearing the end of their 12-hour long Zoom deliberation, with frequent recesses for one-on-one negotiation, the commission also voted for Senate district pairings. Both House and Senate legislative district maps are advancing for public comment next week.

Every 10 years the commission is responsible for dividing the state into 100 legislative House districts, then pairing them into 50 Senate districts following the U.S. Census count. In the most recent count, Montana saw a population boom, which required the state to draw a new Congressional House District, which the commission voted on last year.

Thursday, Belgrade was a sticking point.

Republicans looked to draw it separate from Bozeman after hearing from residents that they wanted to remain whole, and not as two split districts drawn into Bozeman. Smith broke the tie in favor of Republicans’ amendment to make Belgrade a separate district from Bozeman, which flipped a competitive district in the tentative adopted map to a safe Republican seat.

The districts with Belgrade had previously been drawn to include a swath of downtown Bozeman.

“The tentative map that we had adopted before had 10 competitive seats. That’s not a lot out of 100,” said Commissioner Kendra Miller, a Democrat, in an interview Friday morning. “We’ve eliminated a competitive seat off the map, and so that’s why I opposed it.”

Miller said for a community like Belgrade, destined to grow outside the district lines in the next 10 years, it would be better for people to have two representatives as opposed to one.

“But my Republican colleagues disagreed,” Miller said.

Commissioner Dan Stusek, a Republican, offered a different explanation. He said the GOP opted to honor the comments heard from people in Belgrade.

“Belgrade had communicated that they wanted to remain whole,” Stusek said on Friday, referencing public comment in part made during the hearing Saturday.

Stusek also pointed to a place where Democrats took a different tact — he said the written public comment received from Big Sky largely asked to be split, but he said Democrats were not willing to make that accommodation.

Smith told the Daily Montanan on Thursday evening the argument for Belgrade being a “community of interest,” or a region with residents that have similar policy concerns, factored into her decision.

“There had been some other concessions earlier on in that area from Republicans that I think needed to be addressed,” Smith said.

Keeping communities of interest whole is an established goal, though not a criteria, for the commission. Other goals include not drawing the map to unduly favor a political party and minimizing divides of cities and counties. Criteria involve keeping the population deviation, Voting Rights Act compliance and keeping districts compact and contiguous.

Smith also broke the tie against the Republican amendment to draw Whitefish and Columbia Falls separately, which like the Belgrade amendment, received a lot of public comment during Saturday’s hearings. This change also would have flipped a competitive seat on the tentative map to favor the GOP.

Maps from both parties submitted before tentative adoption drew the areas together, but Republicans noted they had done so to reach consensus, not because it was their preference.

“I was under the impression there had been consensus last week on Whitefish, and so I do agree that that was a step backwards,” Smith said of her vote.

Stusek said Whitefish was now an outlier on the map in terms of communities being kept whole.

Smith also voted against a third proposal to adjust a district in Missoula County to make it slightly more purple, even though it would still lean Democrat. Smith said she was concerned about contiguity with the part of the district, and she said it was going to lean for Democrats anyway.

“I’m a little concerned about the little South Hills part they tried to put in that wasn’t as clean of a cut there for me,” Smith said.

The negotiations for the amendments during Thursday’s meeting took place largely outside of public view in one-on-one conversations between commissioners and with Smith.

Miller characterized the negotiations as “shuttle diplomacy” led by Smith, with an emphasis on consensus building and fewer votes taken, different from a “vote-a-rama” method of handling amendments to the map.

Smith said the process wasn’t what she would consider true shuttle diplomacy, but that she worked with the commissioners to get them to areas of agreement in a limited timeframe so they could finally cast votes.

“There were just some delays in this whole process, even in the last couple of weeks, that have made it a real crunch for us at this point,” she said.

At the top of the meeting, Republicans presented a new map for consideration that was sent to Democrats and the chair the evening before.

Miller said that the map came as a surprise to them, with no communication prior from Republicans. Stusek said the new map took time to draw, factoring in public comment. He said the criticism was fair, but Democrats hadn’t communicated throughout the week either.

Legislative staff said during the meeting that the final map with amendments would be available online prior to the upcoming public hearing next week.

The commission recessed the meeting Thursday to reconvene at noon on Monday over Zoom to assign “holdover Senators” that were elected to serve four year terms in 2022. The commission’s criteria says the legislators be assigned to districts with the “greatest number of residents of the district from which they were previously elected when possible.”

Smith said the amount of public comment received has been incredibly helpful, and she recommended people come to hearings with detailed ideas, and commended past commenters who brought visual aids to show how their community would be impacted given travel or other concerns.

The commission is holding a public hearing over the amended tentative maps for House and Senate districts on Wednesday over Zoom.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.