Committee takes up prison gerrymandering, precinct sizes

By: - January 19, 2023 8:18 pm

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Senate Bill 77 would lead to more equitable counts of the Native American community in redistricting by “solving the problem of prison gerrymandering,” proponents said Wednesday in a legislative committee meeting.

Prison gerrymandering is a practice wherein incarcerated individuals are counted during the census at the facility where they are serving their sentence as opposed to their hometown, giving an oversized influence to the location where the prison is located.

The bill would codify a practice already underway by the Department of Corrections where last known addresses for incarcerated individuals are collected for the purpose of redistricting.

“It will bring the redistricting better in line with Montana election law, which says that a person does not lose their residential address simply because they are involuntarily imprisoned elsewhere, and it will ensure that Native Americans are not discriminated against in the redistricting process,” said Patrick Yawakie, representing the Blackfeet tribe.

SB 77 on prison gerrymandering and another bill on election precinct size both ​​were heard in the Senate State Administration committee. The bills were drafted by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission and sponsored by Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula.

To underscore the importance of the bill to counties that include Native American communities, Yawakie said Native Americans in Montana make up 6% of the population but 20% of the state’s prisoners. A recently released MacArthur Foundation report found that Native Americans in the U.S. are incarcerated 38% more than the national average, as reported by Native News Online.

Sen. Mike Fox, D-Hays, asked Dan Stusek of the redistricting commission if federal prisoners held in another state would have their vote counted in Montana. Stusek said no.


Senate Bill 86 would set a maximum size for precincts, which Morigeau said would be helpful in redistricting. That’s because having similarly sized precincts will help the goal to create districts of equal populations, which he said is a challenge.

Precinct populations vary, and the bill would set the maximum size for a precinct at 2,000 voters, Morigeau said. Currently, he said urban districts can get as high as 5,000 to 6,000 voters.

He said establishing a maximum would allow future commissions to better follow precinct boundary lines. He said it would also make legislative districts more manageable and less daunting for candidates and volunteers.

Clerk and Recorder for Ravalli County and head of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders Regina Plettenberg spoke in opposition — not to the idea but because of administrative concerns. She said 2,000 voters in each precinct means more overall precincts.

But more precincts mean more staffing, which is a challenge.

And considering her experience with the number of people who actually show up in person, she advocated for bigger precincts.
“We think the 3,000 would enable us to build better precincts that will make sense,” she said. “We’ll have to staff each of those tables, so that’s one of our concerns.”

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, suggested a compromise of a 2,500 voter maximum. Plettenberg said the association is willing to work with the committee on an amendment.

As of late Thursday, committee hadn’t voted according to legislative tracking.

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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.