HELENA — The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission completed their first task last year – dividing the state into two congressional districts. But their work only gets more complicated now, as they begin the process of reshaping the districts that will elect 100 members of the Montana House of Representatives and 50 members of the Montana Senate.
“We saw how difficult it is to draw a line – one line,” said Commissioner Dan Stusek, a Republican. “Now we’re drawing 100 lines.”
On Tuesday, the four bipartisan commissioners – two Republicans and two Democrats – each unveiled their initial proposals for Montana’s next legislative map. Now, the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on those maps.
Republicans Stusek and Jeff Essmann said they focused on creating compact districts and minimizing split communities in their maps.
Democrats Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller highlighted competitive districts and their goal of making the Legislature’s partisan balance closer to statewide vote totals.
Disagreements quickly surfaced. Miller and Lamson said the Republican maps gave the GOP an advantage in the vast majority of districts and diluted Native American voting power, and they opposed moving them forward for public comment.
“Asking us to walk in as if we’re on equal footing and look for consensus is not a fair process to us,” said Miller. “I do not think that extreme Republican gerrymanders should come forward.”
Essmann and Stusek said their maps were based on geographical concerns, not political ones, and that the difference in partisan breakdown reflected how Democratic voters were concentrated in specific geographic areas. They argued their proposals met all legal requirements.
“The Montana Constitution and federal law does not require proportional representation,” said Essmann. “What is in our constitution is compact and contiguous and equal, and respecting the Voting Rights Act.”
Miller said, using data from 10 statewide elections in 2016, 2018 and 2020, Essmann’s map would feature 66 districts won by Republicans at least 80% of the time, 26 districts won by Democrats 80% of the time and 8 competitive districts where each party won at least three times. The same data showed Stusek’s map with 68 Republican districts, 24 Democratic districts and eight competitive districts.
The Democrats said their goal was to make the overall breakdown close to the 57% that Republican candidates received on average in those selected races. According to their data, each of their maps would have 52 Republican districts, 38 Democratic districts and ten competitive districts.
Dave’s Redistricting App, the online redistricting tool that the state used to share the proposed maps, calculates its own “partisan lean” for each district. It estimated Essmann’s map to have 60 Republican districts, 25 Democratic and 15 in the competitive range – between 45% and 55% for each party. It estimated Stusek’s map to have 58 Republican, 23 Democratic and 19 competitive districts, Lamson’s to have 49 Republican, 31 Democratic and 20 competitive, and Miller’s to have 50 Republican, 32 Democratic and 18 competitive.
Dave’s Redistricting App estimates Montana’s current legislative map has 53 Republican-leaning districts, 27 Democratic-leaning districts and 20 competitive districts.
Native American voting strength was also a major topic Tuesday. Under the current legislative map, there are six majority-Native House districts, each paired off to form three majority-Native Senate districts. However, in each of the Republican proposals, two of the House districts centered on reservations would no longer share a border, so they couldn’t be combined in a single Senate district.
Democratic commissioners said the loss of that majority-minority district would likely violate the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires minority communities to have districts that allow them the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice when possible. Republicans said what’s required to comply with the VRA is open to interpretation, and that there would still be possible ways to create a Senate district where Native voters could elect their chosen candidate.
In the end, Maylinn Smith, the commission’s nonpartisan chair, voted to send all four maps forward for public comment. She said these are only starting points.
“I do not anticipate the maps we see today being the final maps going forward, so I want public comment on that,” she said. “You have framed the issues with the maps; I expect to have lots of public comment in regard to that.”
From the end of August to the middle of September, the commission has scheduled six in-person public hearings to get feedback on these maps, in Pablo, Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls, Crow Agency and Billings. They will also hold three online hearings over Zoom – one each for western, central and eastern Montana. The commission’s website includes a full schedule and information on how to provide comment on the maps.
Commissioners plan to hold a four-day work session to finalize House districts the last week of November. They could adopt a tentative legislative map by the end of 2022.
The new legislative districts will not be in effect for this year’s election. They’ll be implemented for the first time in 2024.