HELENA — Montana just elected lawmakers to serve in the 2023 state legislative session. Before that session begins in January, Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission will be getting to the heart of their work, reshaping the legislative districts for the next election and beyond.
The commission has set aside four days next week for work sessions. There, they hope to hammer out an initial tentative version of the legislative map that will be used in elections from 2024 to 2032.
The work is much more complex than their initial task: drawing a single line to separate Montana’s two new congressional districts. The first step is to carve the state into 100 House districts, each with about 10,800 residents. Once the commissioners finish a House map, they’ll join pairs of neighboring seats to form 50 Senate districts.
“What we saw during the congressional meetings was maybe a little more dramatic, but a lot less detailed than what we’re trying to do now,” said Dan Stusek. Stusek is one of two Republicans on the five-member commission.
“It’s a lot more complicated; it’s a lot more technical,” said Kendra Miller, one of the two Democratic commissioners.
In August, the four bipartisan commissioners released their initial proposals. Republicans Stusek and Jeff Essmann said the maps they produced would prioritize relatively geographically compact districts. Democrats Miller and Joe Lamson said they drew maps that would emphasize competitiveness and create a legislature that was closer to Montana’s overall partisan makeup.
However, the commission has taken significant public comment since then, and it’s clear whatever map moves forward will be significantly changed.
“I feel quite confident saying none of those four are going to be the final map,” said Maylinn Smith, the commission’s chair.
As an officially nonpartisan commissioner, appointed by the Montana Supreme Court, Smith will likely be called on to break ties if the two parties remain split on a map. She told MTN she’s going to be focused on the criteria the commission has adopted. They include both requirements – relative population equality, protection of minority voting power, and compact and contiguous districts – and goals – connecting “communities of interest,” minimizing splits of cities and counties, considering competitive elections and preventing a plan from “unduly favoring” one political party.
Throughout the process, Smith has said she wants the four partisan commissioners to reach consensus whenever possible.
“I am willing to be the tiebreaker once, but I’m only going to do one vote, so we’ll have to get pretty close on that final map if they can’t reach consensus,” she said.
Stusek and Miller told MTN they believe there are areas where they can reach agreement – but they’re still far apart in some ways.
Stusek said Republicans saw district compactness – which is required by the state constitution – as a main objective, along with linking communities with shared interests and geographic ties. In response to Democrats’ objections that their maps created too many Republican-leaning districts compared to statewide partisan breakdown, he said that reflected Democratic voting strength being concentrated in specific areas.
Stusek said they are willing to have discussions about emphasizing competitive districts, a subject he says they heard a lot about in public comment.
“We didn’t want it to be a mandatory criteria, or a criteria at all, because we thought it got abused a little bit, but it’s certainly something that we’re open to, and we’ve heard from people that they value and appreciate,” he said.
Miller said Democrats’ maps met a minimum requirement for compactness, but they wanted to balance it with all of the other criteria the commission has considered. She said Republicans agreed to accept a competitiveness metric based on ten recent statewide elections, and that the initial proposals would have favored Republicans in many more districts than their statewide vote share in those elections.
Miller said, even if a map may look geographically neater, it may still be biased toward one party.
“What matters at the end of the day to the people of Montana for the next ten years in the Legislature?” she asked. “Are people going to say ‘I liked the shape of my legislative district?’ Or are people going to look at the Legislature and ask if it actually reflects the will of Montana voters?”
The two parties’ initial maps also differed in how they handled tribal areas. For the last 20 years, Montana has had six majority-Native American House districts, paired into three majority-Native Senate districts. In both Republican maps, two House districts centered on reservations would no longer share a border, so they couldn’t be joined into a single Senate district.
Miller said making that change would go against the commission’s responsibility to preserve Native voters’ voice under the Voting Rights Act.
“If we were to adopt something that broke apart reservation communities, so they couldn’t have a voice in the Senate, it would be a quick ticket to court,” she said.
Stusek told MTN Republicans’ maps were intended to give the public a full view of possible redistricting options.
“Through this process, we have heard that folks certainly have indicated a desire to keep Voting Rights Act-compliant districts, and as Republicans on the commission, we fully intend to do so,” he said.
When the commission meets Nov. 28 for its first work session, they will have a new member. In October, Lamson – who previously served as a commissioner in the 2000 and 2010 cycles – stepped down for health reasons. He was replaced as Democratic commissioner by former Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.
Smith told MTN she’s hopeful the commission will finish their work on a tentative House district map by the end of next week, but they may have to have some additional time to analyze proposals before putting one out for public comment.
The public is set to have a chance to weigh in on the tentative map at the State Capitol in Helena and over Zoom, during a hearing on Saturday, Dec. 10. Later in December, the commission will meet again to pair Senate districts and assign current senators who will be “held over” during the 2024 elections to represent
You can also continue to submit written public comment on the commission’s website. They have a contact form for general responses. In addition, you can view the proposed maps, click on an interactive tool and provide specific responses about particular areas.