The Montana State Capitol building in subzero temperatures on Dec. 21, 2022 (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
Montana’s redistricting commission on Wednesday made its final tweaks to the legislative map before voting to submit its updated proposal to the legislature in January, a milestone in the long process.
The legislature will have 30 days after submission on Jan. 6 to comment on the map before it gets kicked back to the commission, which will then have another 30 days to make potential changes and submit to the Secretary of State’s office.
“We hope to hear bipartisan recommendations from the legislature and we hope that people will work together to put those forward,” Kendra Miller, Democrat on the commission, told the Daily Montanan, citing the legislature’s Republican supermajority and the history of legislator-drawn maps not working in the state.
Former redistricting commissioner Jon Bennion, who served on the commission that used the 2010 U.S. Census count during the last redistricting cycle, said that in the past two cycles there have only been slight tweaks made to the map based on comments from legislators.
“I don’t think the chairs of the respective redistricting commissions from the last 20 years wanted to completely start rewriting the map,” Bennion said in an interview. “They looked for what looked like bipartisan recommendations from the legislature.”
Bennion said it’s up to the legislature to decide the process they want to take for getting comments from lawmakers. He said in the past few cycles, committees formed to pass a resolution to send back to the redistricting commission, and since Republicans have had control of the legislature, the recommendations tended to slant in their favor.
“It could be new compared to what you’ve seen in the past, just because there’s probably only a handful of people that were in the legislature 10 years ago when this was done,” he said.
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission made relatively minor edits to the map during a Wednesday hearing. The changes were made in Cascade County and near Lewistown which roused some debate along party lines. The commission also made a unanimous amendment in Lake County.
The vote to send the most updated map to the legislature was split, as has been typical throughout the congressional and legislative map-drawing process, with Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed and Chairwoman Maylinn Smith breaking the tie.
“I am hoping that the legislature will take a good look at this and perhaps offer comments for improvement,” Republican Commissioner Jeff Essmann said. “My concern is that these legislators are elected to serve their constituents and with the massive size of these districts in this eastern congressional district, that is becoming increasingly more challenging.”
Essmann put forward an amendment to the map in Cascade County that would add census blocks from the Missouri River so that House District 21 in Black Eagle and House District 22 with Malmstrom Air Force Base touch, which is legally required to be able to form a Senate district. The two had been paired to form Senate District 11 late into the commission’s meeting last week.
Miller pushed back on the adjustment to the map, saying that because they didn’t touch, they shouldn’t have been paired. She noted that the two districts were connected across a river without a bridge connection in the district, though she conceded that not being an issue within the criteria.
“I doubt that the candidate is going to be forging the Missouri River to get across. They’re going to drive through other districts, so that is not a legal problem,” Miller said.
Miller recommended different pairings of House Districts in the urban core, like HD 21 with the Fox Farm area in the southwest region in HD 24, based on comments from the Republican delegation in Great Falls. She proposed modifying the map based on public comment, which failed along party lines as Smith voted against it.
The commission unanimously voted in favor of Republican Commissioner Dan Stusek’s Lake County amendment to divide House Districts 13 and 12 around Flathead Lake horizontally to make a north-south divide as opposed to the current east-west divide. Stusek said it wouldn’t impact Senate pairings.
Stusek said the change was prompted by comments from the public that didn’t see it being logical to pair communities like Lakeside and Somers on the northside of the lake to the area just outside Polson on the southern end.
Commissioners will meet again in February to receive recommendations from the legislature and will then have 30 days to submit the final map to the Secretary of State’s Office.
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