Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license. Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license.

HELENA — The commission tasked with dividing Montana into two U.S. House districts for the first time since the 1980s has a Nov. 14 deadline to submit a final district map to Montana’s secretary of state. To help it do that, the commission is seeking public input in the form of written comments and specific mapping proposals. 

The five-member Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission formally acknowledged receipt of detailed data from the 2020 U.S. census at a meeting last week, kicking off a 90-day process for drawing new congressional districts for the first time since Montana lost its second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 1990 count. 

Commission Chair Maylinn Smith said in an interview this week that the commission has the option of drawing its own maps, but will consider using elements of public-submitted districting plans — or potentially adopt a map proposed by an individual or entity wholesale. 

“We could arguably get a perfect map that satisfies everybody’s needs,” she said.

Montanans can also provide feedback about proposed maps, which will eventually be posted to the districting commission’s website. Smith said maps that divide the state on a north-south and an east-west basis have already been submitted.

The commission has laid out the following tentative timeline for the congressional districting process:

  • Sept. 15 — Soft deadline for receipt of public-generated proposed maps
  • Sept. 16 or 17 — A meeting to review proposed maps submissions
  • Oct. 5 — A meeting to select specific maps for further discussion
  • Oct. 19 — A hearing to hear public feedback on selected maps
  • Oct. 21 — A meeting to select a single map proposal
  • Oct. 30 — A hearing to hear public feedback on the proposed map and potentially take a final vote.

Montana’s political maps are redrawn every 10 years following decennial censuses. While many states assign district-drawing authority to partisan state legislatures, Montana’s 1972 Constitution delegates the task to an independent five-member commission with two Republican appointees, two Democratic appointees and a committee chair. Smith, who serves as a tiebreaker vote, was appointed by the Montana Supreme Court.

The new congressional maps produced by the districting commission will be used starting in next year’s election. In a separate process next year, the commission will also redraw the districts used to elect the Montana Legislature starting in 2024.

The districting commission previously adopted formal criteria for the new congressional map. Those criteria require that the new districts split the state’s population evenly, be compact and contiguous, and also comply with the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights movement-era law that was passed to guarantee minority groups fair political representation. The commission’s criteria also articulate secondary goals such as minimizing the extent to which district lines split counties, cities and Indian reservations, and specify that “No plan may be drawn to unduly favor a political party.”

The commission specifies that map proposals developed by organizations or individual members of the public should be based on the Census Bureau’s official geographic boundaries. The proposals should also comply with the commission’s adopted criteria and be submitted along with contact information and written information indicating what the plan intends to accomplish.

The commission will accept public map proposals in the form of paper submissions. However, it prefers emailed computer-generated data files such as ESRI shapefiles (a .shp file extension) or so-called block equivalency files, which list the specific census blocks included in proposed districts.

Written comments can be emailed to the commission at districting@mt.gov or submitted via a form on the commission website. The commission is also accepting comments by mail at P.O. Box 201706, Helena, MT 59620, and by fax at 406-444-3036.

Multiple third-party resources are available for Montanans looking to understand the district-drawing process, including some that offer free tools for drawing maps and exporting them to the commission’s preferred file formats:

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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.