Committee passes draft redistricting recommendations, questions commission chair

By: - January 20, 2023 6:32 pm

Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission Chair Maylinn Smith speaks before the legislative redistricting committee on January 20, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

A select committee passed recommendations for changes to a proposed legislative district map on Friday following a hearing where Republicans grilled redistricting chair Maylinn Smith.

Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission Chair Smith fielded questions from legislators on the commission’s process and how it weighed mandatory vs. discretionary criteria for redrawing the map, like compactness (district size) vs. not unduly favoring a party (competitiveness).

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, asked Smith how many times the competitiveness metric was the deciding factor for the makeup of a district. The legislature’s special select committee on redistricting committee is bipartisan with a Republican majority.

Smith said competitiveness was just one of the criteria the commission looks at. The commission is comprised of Smith, a nonpartisan chair appointed by the Montana Supreme Court, plus two Republicans and two Democrats.

“I strive for competitiveness,” she said, adding that the metric increases the value of representation when voters think their vote is going to count, as found in testimony from the commission’s public hearings.

Mercer asked the question again, to which Smith said her answer wasn’t changing.

The proposed map is the product of many meetings and much public input and negotiation among commission members over the last few months.

The current map has some lawmakers on edge because it would draw them out of their current districts, and Republicans in particular have raised questions about the process.

Smith said she was a consensus builder on the commission, conducting “shuttle diplomacy” in the final weeks of negotiations.

She said had she been given more time, she could have built even more consensus into the map, but delays in receiving 2020 census block data at the beginning of the process meant the commission had even less time than it should have had.

“Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there’s litigation in the case and the litigation results in reversal of the map that are remanded to the commission,” Mercer said. “It sounds like you could do additional work given the additional time.”

“You can always do additional work,” Smith said.“That’s the nature of this process.,”

Smith was asked about what kind of recommendations she would be considering, as she had said that she would prefer bipartisan recommendations from the legislature.

“I value recommendations that come from bipartisan work,” she said. “That means that has a consensus base to it.”

She clarified Friday that didn’t mean the commission wasn’t going to listen to all recommendations.

The recommendations the committee adopted, voted on unanimously after several amendments, are divided into sections of consensus and partisan requests. The distinction was at the request of House Minority Leader and committee member Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena.

The current proposed map divides the state into 100 house districts, with 50 senate district pairings of house districts following the population growth counted during the 2020 U.S. Census count.

The recommendations, including amendments, are going through the legislature as Senate Joint Resolution 8.

The bulk of the amendments came as a package from the Republican caucus. Per the amendment page, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, requested the changes, which lists a series of districts the Republicans wish the Districting and Apportionment Commission re-draw.

If all the recommendations are incorporated in the map, they will likely cause a “ripple effect” of other moving lines.

When asked if he had concerns about potential violations of mandatory criteria in other districts as a result, Mercer said he was more concerned about perceived violations of the commission’s constitutional requirements.

“The Commission’s discretionary competitiveness criterion, which has no basis in the Constitution, was prioritized to favor the representation of Democrats in urban areas at the expense of the compactness mandated in the Constitution,” the caucus amendment read.

Gallatin Valley has been particularly controversial through the process. Friday, Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, took issue with House District 60 being drawn with rural and urban segments.

The bill will go to the Senate State Administration Committee on Monday.

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.

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.