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Montana Officials Debate, Create Rules For Congressional Districting

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Montana officials have decided on final rules to guide the drawing of the state’s new Congressional districts. MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar has a rundown of the process.

Freddy Monares: Before we get into what those rules look like Shaylee, can you remind us, what is redistricting and why is it important? 

Shaylee Ragar: Absolutely. Redistricting is political map making. Population numbers change over time and legislative and congressional district maps need to be updated every ten years to make sure everyone is represented equally. 

Here’s Wendy Underhill, a nonpartisan redistricting expert with the National Conference on State Legislatures. 

“That’s all under the rubric of one person one vote. It means equal representation.” Underhill says.

It’s Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission’s job to use the latest population data to draw new districts for political representation. And for the first time in 30 years, the commission will draw two Congressional districts instead of one due the state’s overall increase in population.

Freddy Monares: And this map will influence how Montanans’ interests are represented in state and federal government? 

Shaylee Ragar: Right, this process is really important because it lays the foundation for how Montanans are represented in the state Legislature and Congress, and the new districts will be up for election in 2022.

Underhill says it’s common for debates over criteria to be contentious. 

“There are so many permutations, so many what ifs. It’s like chess, but three dimensional chess.” 

Freddy Monares: So where are we at in the redistricting process now?

Shaylee Ragar: At the beginning stages. Before drawing the map, the commission has to set the rules for how they can start drawing lines. 

Montana is one of only 14 states with an independent, bipartisan commission that’s in charge of drawing new district lines. Once the commission gets the 2020 Census data, which is scheduled to arrive in August, it has 90 days to produce final maps. 

As we wait for those numbers, the commission has been looking at sideboards to regulate the map drawing process.

On Friday, the commission voted to adopt final criteria for the state’s new Congressional districts, but will hold off on finalizing the rules for the legislative districts, which can be different.

Freddy Monares: So what are the final criteria for drawing Montana’s Congressional districts?

Shaylee Ragar: The two Democrats and two Republicans on the commission unanimously agreed that the districts must be equal in population, compact and contiguous, or in one piece.

They also all generally agreed that districts shouldn’t favor or disfavor any political party. There was a lot of debate about how to accomplish that in the rules, but in the end the criteria say that no plan may be drawn to unduly favor a political party, so they can’t design a district to turn out Republican or Democratic candidates based on its voter makeup. 

Freddy Monares: What are the other map drawing rules? 

Shaylee Ragar: The commission took an unusual step and added politically competitive as a discretionary rule for the Congressional districts. 

Freddy Monares: What makes that unusual? 

Shaylee Ragar: Underhill with the National Conference on State Legislatures says that only five states currently use competitiveness as redistricting criteria.

“It is tricky. One person could say 60-40 is competitive, somebody else might say 52-48 is competitive.” 

Freddy Monares: There was lots of public comment before these rules for drawing the House Districts were made. What did you hear? 

Shaylee Ragar: There was tons of support for making districts politically competitive, including from Nancy Liefer with the League of Women Voters, who urged the commission --

“To center its decisions about criteria on the concept of what will most effectively and fairly engage voters for the next 10 years,” Liefer says.

Republican Rep. Derek Skees spoke against using competitive as a criterion and using words like fair to describe map drawing.

“The definition of fair is entirely subjective. And should not apply in anything that you decide.” 

Freddy Monares: So the commission will consider making Montana’s two U.S. House districts politically competitive. Were there any other points of contention during the meeting?

Shaylee Ragar: Democrats and Republicans disagreed on whether their new map lines should be required to follow existing political subdivisions, like counties, cities and school districts. 

Republicans say it should be mandatory to use these lines when drawing political districts to keep similar communities intact. Many states require that current political subdivisions are used to draw districts.

Democrats say it should be discretionary, that they believe the lines were drawn arbitrarily years ago and don’t necessarily provide for fair political representation. 

Republicans ultimately compromised with Democrats and it will be discretionary for the two Congressional districts. But it’ll likely be a more heated debate for the 150 legislative districts, as will the question over competitiveness.

Freddy Monares: Where does the commission go from here? 

Shaylee Ragar: The commission will meet on July 20 to finish voting on legislative criteria and then in August. The commission will have to decide how it wants to count incarcerated populations and will hopefully receive final numbers from the census bureau. 

Freddy Monares: Thanks for sharing your reporting.