HELENA — A federal court ruled Tuesday that Montana’s electoral districts used to elect Public Service Commissioners are unconstitutional and selected a new map to use for the 2022 election.
In their opinion, a panel of three judges said the current districts violate the one person, one vote principle of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The plaintiffs – former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown and Gallatin County residents Hailey Sinoff and Don Seifert – filed suit late last year against the Montana Secretary of State, saying the five PSC districts have become unconstitutional because their populations are nowhere close to equal.
The panel of federal judges selected and ordered the state to use a map similar to one that was presented by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen.
The notable differences between the new map that was selected and the one previously used for elections in Montana are Glacier and Pondera Counties move from District 5 to District 1, Musselshell County moves from District 3 to District 1 and Deer Lodge County moves from District 3 to District 4.
Jacobsen's initial map left Pondera County in District 5. The court said, by shifting it into District 1, their adjusted map would have a smaller maximum population deviation and it would keep the Blackfeet Reservation intact.
Judges said their map was the best way to bring the districts' populations into balance while keeping counties whole — as the state has done in the past — and ensuring all voters who were set to vote in 2022 will have the opportunity to do so. They also reiterated that their plan can be changed if the Legislature amends it in a special session or the 2023 regular session.
House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, said in a statement he believes the matter should have been left to the Montana State Legislature.
"The Legislature's position all along has been that the court should have waited for the 2023 session to correct the issue before engaging in court-ordered redistricting," wrote Galt. "While I disagree with that decision, I appreciate the court ordering a map that makes very few changes to prior legislative action and also for recognizing the Legislature's ultimate authority to adjust Montana's PSC districts."
The PSC regulates electric, natural gas, water and other utilities in Montana and has five members elected by district. The district boundaries haven’t been redrawn since 2003. District 3, which includes fast-growing Bozeman, and District 5, which includes Kalispell and Helena, now have populations that are 10.5 percent and 7 percent higher, respectively than an equitable amount.
District 1’s population is now 14 percent below the equitable amount. District 4, which includes Missoula and five other western Montana counties, is 3.4 percent below an equitable population, and District 2, which includes Billings and southeast Montana, has about the correct population.
The map selected will remain in place until lawmakers take up the issue in either a special session or during a regular legislative session.Efforts to call a special session to address the issue failed last month. Seats in districts one and five are up for election this year.
"The Secretary of State is reviewing this afternoon's order to provide guidance to election officials moving forward. Secretary Jacobsen reminds potential candidates for all offices, including PSC, that candidate filing ends on Monday, March 14 at 5 p.m.," wrote Richie Melby, communications director for the Secretary of State.
Read the court's full opinion below:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information from the court opinion.