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Commission Begins Choosing Criteria To Draw Montana's Second U.S. House Seat

The commission in charge of redrawing Montana’s political boundaries this week met for the first time since federal census data revealed the state would regain its second U.S. House seat. Though it’s early in the process, commissioners have different approaches for determining what the state’s congressional districts should look like. Kevin Trevellyan with Yellowstone Public Radio has been following the commission. He shares his reporting with Nicky Ouellet.

Nicky: Kevin, I’ve started to see maps floating around of Montana broken into two districts. While eventually anyone will be able to draft and submit a districting proposal, who’s ultimately going to decide the shape of Montana’s U.S. House boundaries?

Kevin: With each census, a new Districting and Apportionment Commission is formed to redraw Montana’s political districts. It includes two Republicans and two Democrats appointed by state legislative leaders. If those members can’t agree on a nonpartisan chair, the Montana Supreme Court appoints one, which is what happened with the current commission and all but one other commission over the past 50 years. The commission will be redrawing state House and Senate districts, but the focus so far has really been on the congressional seats ahead of the 2022 midterms.

Nicky: I imagine the commission will receive a lot of scrutiny on how it decides to split up those House boundaries.

Kevin: Democrat Joe Lamson previously worked for Rep. Pat Williams and has now served on three commissions, including this one. He set the stakes for the districting process during a phone interview.

“It's the basic foundation of our representative democracy. It sets the field for the next 10 years, you know?” Lamson says.

Nicky: Montana had two U.S. House seats until 1993 split roughly along the Continental Divide. Why not use that previous line?

Kevin: It ties into the math of Montana’s recent population growth. The state’s western half has grown faster than the eastern half since Montana lost the second House seat. Because districts need to be relatively equal in population, commissioners can’t use the same boundaries from before. Figuring out where to shift new residents is the crux of their work, according to Commissioner Jeff Essmann, who served seven terms in the Legislature and previously chaired the state Republican Party.

“The only challenge presented is where are we going to put the line,” Essman says.

Nicky: So what factors will determine the map commissioners eventually draw to divide the congressional districts?

Kevin: Although Tuesday’s meeting was mostly housekeeping, commissioners did briefly talk about what are called “criteria,” basically guiding principles for drawing boundaries. There are certain factors the commission is legally held to, like making sure all legislative and congressional districts are contiguous. Commissioners have more discretion with other criteria, like whether to divide districts along geographical boundaries. Commissioners will share potential criteria during a meeting next month, then adopt them in July after the public has a chance to comment.

Nicky: Are commissioners in agreement over what those criteria should be?

Kevin: Based on my early interviews, not necessarily. Commission Democrats want the criteria to produce at least one House district that’s competitive, which isn’t surprising because they’d like to see a member of their party elected to Congress.

Nicky: Current Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale’s statewide seat has been red since 1997. Before 1993 though, Montana’s western district leaned blue, and the eastern one leaned red.

Kevin: To recreate competitiveness in the west, Democratic proposals already being circulated call for splitting part of conservative Flathead Valley into conservative eastern Montana. That would keep left-leaning cities in the western section while meeting each district’s population requirements. Apart from helping his party, Commissioner Lamson says having a competitive district would engage voters and result in less polarizing candidates.

“You're increasing the variety of public dialogue in the state so that Montana is benefiting from all the voices in Montana and not just getting roped down the one particular path,” Lamson says.

Nicky: What do Republicans on the commission think of purposefully designing a competitive district?

Kevin: Commissioner Essmann calls that an outcome-based motivation, which he doesn’t support. He says the commission should instead work off what he calls process-based criteria, like deciding whether or not districts can split up cities, counties or tribal reservations.

“We have a hundred years of precedent of having a mountain district and a prairie district,” Essmann says. “No one has advanced a cogent argument for changing that and ignoring that precedent other than achieving a political goal.”

Republican maps floating around propose including blue Gallatin County into a conservative eastern district, which would make a western district less competitive for Democrats.

Nicky: Has the job of redrawing Montana’s political lines always fallen on this commission?

Kevin: The Legislature previously drew state House and Senate districts, but that led to a lot of partisan fights. Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College, says Montana’s early districting rules initially harmed urban areas and medium-sized counties.

“It benefitted very rural interests and low-population interest,” Johnson says.

During the 1965 session, lawmakers actually failed to reapportion the state, rejecting about a dozen bills introduced for that purpose.

Nicky: So how did Montana end up with its Districting and Apportionment Commission?

Kevin: It was one of the big changes to come out of the 1972 Constitutional Convention. Johnson says drafters wanted to take the politics out of redistricting.

They didn’t entirely succeed. Over the years, there’s been litigation accusing the commission of benefiting one party over another -- a practice called gerrymandering. The chair’s appointment has also been a source of contention with this group. But Johnson says commissions have generally drawn fair districts over the years.

“Montana has actually done a pretty good job in having representation for both Republicans and Democrats commensurate with their power within the state, compared to other states,” Johnson says.

Nicky: Wasn’t there a bill this legislative session seeking to give some of this power back to lawmakers?

Kevin: Republicans introduced this policy a day after news broke that Montana would regain its second House seat. It tells the commission to draw congressional boundaries in alignment with legislative district standards, for example making them compact. The language is similar to existing federal law, though prioritization of the standards is different. It’s unclear whether the Legislature has any authority to manage the commission, given Montana’s constitution and court precedent. We’ll see if the new law factors into a court case further along in the process.

Nicky: So when will the current commission wrap up its work?

Kevin: That’s still to be determined. Statute says the commission has to deliver its final congressional districts 90 days after receiving final census data from the federal government. But commissioners don’t yet know when that will be. States around the country are also challenging the census data in court. So the Montana commission may be handing off its final map by November, or it could be later.

Nicky: Thanks for sharing your reporting.

Kevin Trevellyan is YPR’s Report For America statehouse reporter.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio