HELENA – A last-minute change in the assignment of two “holdover” senators in Montana’s newly drawn Senate districts short-changes the voting rights of people in a new central Montana district, and should be thrown out, a lawsuit says.
The suit, filed in state District Court by two dozen voters in Fergus and Wheatland counties, says the panel that drew the new districts improperly assigned Sen. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade, to represent the new Senate District 15 starting in 2015 – even though he doesn’t live in the district.
The assignment of Hamlett was made “without notice to the public, review by the Legislature or consideration by anyone of the vote-diluting effects upon the voters in Senate District 15,” the lawsuit said.
The suit asks District Judge Randal Spaulding of Roundup to declare the assignment invalid and to leave Senate District 15 as an “open” seat, allowing its voters to choose a new senator in 2014.
The lawsuit stems from a change made by the Districting and Apportionment Commission at its last meeting in Helena on Feb. 12, before submitting its final plan for new legislative districts that become effective in the 2014 election and for the next 10 years.
The five-member panel voted to assign Hamlett to the new SD15 for the final two years of his term (2015 and 2016) and to assign Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, to represent Senate District 10 in Cascade County for the final two years of his term.
The change allows Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, to run for re-election in the new Senate District 9 in 2014.
Before the change, Jones would have been barred from running for re-election in 2014 in SD9, where he lives, because Ripley had been assigned to represent the district through 2016.
James Regnier, chairman of the Districting and Apportionment Commission, said Monday the panel made the change after getting a letter signed by 12 state lawmakers and hearing from residents of SD9, saying Jones should be able to run for re-election in 2014.
The lawsuit said the assignment of Hamlett to SD15, which covers all or parts of Fergus, Wheatland, Judith Basin, Golden Valley, Petroleum, Meagher and Cascade counties, forces most of its voters to wait until 2016 to vote for a state senator – six years after they last elected one.
The same thing happened to many of the same voters 10 years ago, when another Democrat holdover senator living outside the district was assigned to represent parts of their new district for the final two years of his term, the suit said.
“History just repeated itself for voters in Judith Basin, Fergus and Petroleum counties,” the suit said.
Regnier said assigning holdover senators to new districts, by its nature, creates districts where some voters go six years without voting for a state senator.
Twenty-five of Montana’s 50 state Senate districts have an election every two years. That means when the districts are redrawn, 25 senators in the middle of their four-year terms must be assigned to new districts.
“That’s a function of moving the lines to meet the population requirement,” Regnier said. “This is part and parcel of redistricting.”