Montana Districting Commission
Joe Lamson, pictured next to fellow Commissioner Kendra Miller, is resigning from the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission (Courtesy Montana Public Access Network) Credit: Screenshot courtesy of MPAN

HELENA — Montana’s five-member redistricting commission voted Friday to formally adopt criteria to guide its work in establishing lines for the state’s new congressional district. A vote on criteria governing how the commission will redraw state legislative boundaries was pushed to July 20.

The Districting and Apportionment Commission’s votes came after nearly a full day of debate among Democratic and Republican members, with each side pushing its preferred criteria in the face of strong opposition from the other. Those proposals were also the focus of hours of public testimony delivered Thursday afternoon. Dozens spoke in favor of criteria that would create some competitive districts in which either political party could viably compete, an approach advocated by Democrats Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller. Others directed their comments toward a proposal by Republicans Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek to rank criteria, giving greater weight to population equity, compactness and geographic and functional continuity among districts.

Commission members largely agreed on several mandatory criteria for redistricting set out in the Montana Constitution and utilized by past districting commissions. Those criteria include keeping district populations as equal as possible, ensuring districts are compact and contiguous, and protecting minority voter rights through compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

The most prominent divergence this week was over the Democrats’ preference for considering competitiveness in the new congressional district and in a number of legislative districts. Several members of the public supported the idea, testifying that such districts spur candidates to engage more widely with voters and produce lawmakers that more readily engage in inter-party cooperation in the Legislature. Charlie Carpenter told the commission he is one of a “small minority” of Missoula residents represented by a Republican in Senate District 47: Sen. Dan Salomon.

“Not only in campaigning are they out trying to win other people, but in service they look at the issue, they think about what they think is right,” Carpenter said. “If they have to disappoint the caucus leadership in service of what they think is right, they do it. This is what a fair map produces.”

Speaking with Montana Free Press, Lamson elaborated that factoring competitiveness into district lines could serve to avoid gerrymandering, the common term for drawing political boundaries to favor a particular party. When one party dominates a particular district, Lamson said, the results of a general election are effectively decided in a partisan primary, resulting in the automatic disenfranchisement of minority-party voters.

“In that primary, you usually have between 30% and 40% of the total voters voting,” Lamson said. “That tends to encourage candidates to cater to the more extreme elements of their particular political spectrum. And we don’t think that’s healthy for Montana democracy, that you’re just putting folks in there from one particular point of view, and a particularly extreme view at that.”

“If we get litigated because we drew a partisan gerrymandered plan, then that’s exactly what we deserve.”

Democratic Districting Commission member Kendra Miller

That proposal met with pushback not only from Stusek and Essmann, with the latter arguing that factoring competitiveness would actually invite gerrymandering, but from other members of the public. Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, testified that terms like “competitive” and “fair” are vague and “extremely subjective,” and are not listed in the state Constitution as considerations for drawing electoral districts.

“They’re really just kind of feel-good words and they’re not in the dictates of our Constitution or in our Montana code,” Skees said. “What is fair? By the dictates of the Constitution, it should only be that each district is as close as possible to being equal in population. But if it’s fair by the electorate and the cycles that we’ve had, it would mean that it’s only fair to have 60% of the state’s seats be Republicans, looking at how the votes turned out in the last 10 years.”

After considerable discussion over phrasing, the commission voted unanimously to adopt language specific to congressional districts stating that it “may consider competitiveness of districts when drawing plans.” In an effort to gain consensus, members decided to frame that proposal as a goal rather than a discretionary criteria. The same decision was applied to a proposal that no district may be drawn to unduly favor a political party, which became another point of significant back-and-forth Friday afternoon. Democrats and Republicans split over that proposal, with nonpartisan chair Maylinn Smith voting alongside Republicans to pass it.

Ahead of that vote, Miller took a moment to acknowledge the broader consequences of any commission action that might result in an electoral map that favors one party.

“If we get litigated because we drew a partisan gerrymandered plan, then that’s exactly what we deserve,” Miller said.

The commission’s Republicans have pursued a position that districting criteria should be ranked, and that higher-ranked criteria such as population equality trump lower-ranked criteria such as respecting political subdivision lines in cases where the two might conflict. Such subdivisions include county lines, Indian reservation boundaries, cities, towns and school districts. Democratic input and public testimony characterized ranked prioritization as problematic in balancing various interests in drawing congressional and legislative boundaries. The commission did not vote on the ranking question Friday. Consequently, Essmann told MTFP after the meeting that ranking prioritization will not be part of the congressional criteria, though it will be debated for legislative districts when the commission revisits those criteria later this month.

Another key point where Democrats and Republicans diverged was on the use of existing political subdivisions in redistricting. Democrats argued that drawing along those lines or keeping them wholly within legislative and congressional districts should be optional. Republicans countered that deference to those lines should be mandatory. 

Montana Districting Commission
Republicans Dan Stusek, left, and Jeff Essmann during Friday’s meeting of the Districting and Apportionment Committee. Credit: Screenshot courtesy of MPAN

“It’ll have some teeth if it’s mandatory,” Essmann said Friday. “If it’s discretionary, as it has been in the past, it’ll be easily ignored.”

Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents public school employees, raised particular issue Thursday with a related Republican proposal to include school district boundaries in its mandatory criteria. She said using those boundaries to make determinations on legislative district lines threatens to politicize public schools and turn them into a “political football for both parties” the next time school districts are redrawn.

“It risks injecting more politics instead of less into the everyday lives of MFPE members and their families across the state,” Curtis said, adding that school district boundaries should be used strictly as discretionary criteria to avoid making them “the next dividing line in an increasingly polarized environment.”

The commission opted to “attempt to minimize dividing cities, towns, counties and federal reservations between two districts when possible.” That, too, was adopted as a goal, rather than a discretionary criteria, in drawing congressional districts. Both sides agreed that preserving the integrity of communities of interest — or populations that share economic, social or cultural interests, such as reservations, neighborhoods, rural areas or urban areas — should be a goal as well.

Public testimony was also split over how much deviation the commission should allow in population totals between districts. Democrats have suggested a maximum deviation of 5% to give the commission more flexibility, while Republicans have pressed for deviations of no more than 3%, citing the availability of mapping software that make equalizing district populations easier. During Thursday’s meeting, Stusek explained that with a statewide population of one million people, Montana’s 100 House districts should each have a population of 10,000. A 3% deviation would mean some districts could contain 300 more or fewer people depending on the need to accommodate other criteria, while a 5% deviation would translate to 500 more or fewer people. 

Stusek added on Friday that possible undercounts in the 2020 census could inadvertently result in even higher deviations. In light of census data delays due to the pandemic and emerging lawsuits over new electoral maps elsewhere in the country, the commission agreed to revisit the deviation question at its July 20 meeting.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...