U.S. House of Representatives votes on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) relief bill on Capitol Hill in Washington Credit: Joshua Roberts / Reuters. May not be republished without license.

Montana will gain a second representative in the U.S. House as seats are reapportioned according to population counts from the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau said Monday.

The news means that, starting with the 2022 election, Montana will have two U.S. representatives for the first time since losing its second seat following the 1990 census. The state’s five-member 2020 Districting and Apportionment Commission will be responsible for drawing district boundaries.

Montana’s official 2020 population count, intended to represent the number of people living in the state as of April 1, 2020, is 1,084,225. That’s 94,810 more Montanans than the 989,415 reported in 2010 — change representing 9.6% growth over the course of the decade.

That growth rate is essentially the same as the 9.7% rate reported for Montana from 2000 to 2010, and lower than the 12.9% growth rate over the decade between 1990 and 2000. 

Between 1980 and 1990, the decade that saw Montana’s population stagnate to the point of losing its second seat in Congress, the state’s population grew a mere 1.6%. 

Elsewhere in the country, Texas will gain two House seats as a result of the 2020 census, and Oregon, Colorado, North Carolina and Florida will join Montana in picking up one each. California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York will each lose a seat. It is possible that the results will be challenged in court — New York, for example, would have held on to its 27th congressional seat if the census had counted 89 more residents there.

The numbers released Monday represent the first set of results available from the 2020 census, the constitutionally mandated, once-a-decade effort to count every American in order to rebalance representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Census Bureau will eventually publish more detailed data from the 2020 count, including other demographic information and specific population numbers for smaller geographies including counties and towns.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Monday that the next set of data, the finer-grained demographic counts necessary to redraw political districts, will be available no later than Sept. 30.

In addition to allocating political representation in Washington, D.C., and state capitals across the country, census population counts and demographic data are routinely used in formulas allocating federal spending. Public census data, both collected through the decennial census and other bureau programs, is also relied upon by entrepreneurs, researchers and journalists, among others. 

In a more narrow political sense, though, confirmation that a second representative is being added to Montana’s congressional delegation poured gasoline Monday on a long-smoldering debate about what fair district boundaries would look like.

As specified by the state Constitution, Montana’s redistricting commission is nominally nonpartisan, composed of two commissioners from each major political party and a tiebreaker chairperson appointed either by other commissioners or the Montana Supreme Court.

However, the 2020 commission has already been the subject of political scrutiny. After its initial presiding officer stepped down citing health reasons last year, the state Republican Party issued a fiery press release criticizing the court’s replacement pick, former University of Montana tribal law professor Maylinn Smith, as having “a blatant partisan past” because she had previously made political contributions to Democratic candidates.

Montana GOP Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt referenced that criticism in a statement Monday.

“Despite our excitement, we also know our opposition will do everything in their power to minimize our voices at the ballot box by rigging the system for political benefit,” Kaltschmidt wrote. “As we have already expressed concern over the Commission’s fifth member, we will do all we can to ensure the redistricting process is fair, transparent, and carried out in a way that reflects the will of Montana voters, not just those seeking political power.”

Jeff Essmann, one of two Republicans on the districting commission, retweeted an image before the Census Bureau announcement Monday of a map grouping Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Butte and Bozeman into a single district that would purportedly skew Democratic despite the state’s overall Republican lean in recent election cycles. “This is how you gerrymander,” he wrote.

For their part, Montana Democrats used the news about the second House seat as an opportunity to take an apparent swing at efforts by the GOP-controlled state Legislature to restrict some voter registration options in the name of election security.

“Another seat in Congress gives Montana another seat at the table where decisions are made.  We must ensure that the competition for this new office is free, fair, and unobstructed by irresponsible attacks on our democracy,” wrote Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey. “To make sure this office truly reflects the will of all Montanans we must redouble our efforts to protect all eligible Montanans’ right to access the ballot box.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale also issued statements Monday.

“Even though I will no longer be the lone representative from the state of Montana, this is a great opportunity for the state,” Rosendale said. “Having another member in our delegation makes us that much more powerful and it means we will have representation on more committees that are important to our state.”

Gianforte cited efforts by the Montana Department of Commerce to promote participation in the 2020 count, which was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a great day for Montana. With a second congressional seat, Montanans will have another voice in Congress to work on their behalf,” Gianforte said in a statement. “It’s critical we avoid the traps of partisanship and gerrymandering as our new district lines are drawn. Our new districts should be compact, keep our communities together, and make common sense.”

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.