Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday unveiled their initial attempts at crafting legislative maps, kicking off a heated partisan debate as the commission in charge of redistricting begins to hammer out new boundaries based on 2020 census data.
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, which last year settled on a two-district congressional map after extensive negotiations through 2021, has started the process of drawing lines for 100 House and 50 Senate districts for the state Legislature. The commission is scheduled to decide on a draft map by the end of this year, and then submit it to lawmakers for review and recommendations. A final legislative map won’t go into effect until the 2024 election.
Based on Tuesday’s opening volleys, the commission’s two Democrats and two Republicans are starting relatively far apart. A fifth commissioner selected by the Montana Supreme Court, professional mediator Maylinn Smith, often serves as the nonpartisan, tie-breaking vote.
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She did so at the end of the meeting, siding with the two Republican commissioners to advance all four proposed district maps to the public for comment. Her vote overrode the objections of the Democratic commissioners that the two GOP-submitted maps were unreasonably drawn to favor Republicans.
“I recognize that there are issues with some of the maps and I am confident that those have been fairly raised and we will be getting lots of public comment on those issues,” Smith said, adding, “I do not anticipate the maps we see today as being the final maps.”
The commission is required by the state Constitution to create compact districts with equal or nearly equal populations, which are also contiguous, meaning districts are in a single piece. The federal Voting Rights Act also forbids the state from adopting districts based predominantly on race, or which afford members of a racial minority “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
In addition to passing legal muster, the commission has also adopted several “goals” that include avoiding drawing lines through towns, Native American reservations and other political subdivisions and keeping communities of interest intact. Two other goals attempt to discourage gerrymandering and encourage the creation of competitive districts.
During its last meeting in June, the commission landed on a definition of “competitive” which looks at how a proposed district voted in 10 recent statewide office races. If both parties won at least three of those contests, the commission considers the district to be competitive.
In arguing for her proposal, Democratic commissioner Kendra Miller said the current legislative map only contains nine districts that are competitive by that definition. Her map expands that number to 10, she said, while the likely legislative makeup would mirror the state’s partisan lean.
Based on the 10 statewide race results identified by the commission, Montana voters split 57% to 43% in favor of Republicans, on average. Miller and her Democratic colleague, Joe Lamson, argued that a fair map should send a similar number of Republicans and Democrats to the state’s 100-person House of Representatives.
“One party should not get an extreme advantage above and beyond what the voters are saying they want,” Miller said. “That’s not fair, that’s a rigged game.”
The two Republican commissioners, Dan Stusek and Jeff Essmann, both previously voted against competitiveness being included as one of the commission’s goals. Essmann argued that regardless of whether their maps are competitive, they remained focused on the four “mandatory” criteria.
As the commissioners took turns releasing and describing their map proposals, Miller accused Essmann and Stusek of drawing legislative districts that would favor Republicans in excess of their 57% vote share in an average election.
“The word ‘fair’ does not appear in the Montana Constitution with regard to drawing these maps,” Essmann said.
The public can review map proposals and submit public comments on the commission’s website, mtredistricting.gov.