An effort to divide Montana into two districts for U.S. House elections over the next decade now has a set of nine finalist maps — and an unmistakable partisan divide.

The maps were advanced this week by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, which is up against a Nov. 14 deadline for drawing the new congressional districts. Commissioners, who said they adapted their proposals after reviewing dozens of unique maps submitted by members of the public, are looking for additional public feedback in the coming weeks.

In addition to accepting written comment, the commission plans to take testimony at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 19, and then adopt a “tentative final” map at an Oct. 21 work session. The public will then have a chance to weigh in on the singular proposal at an Oct. 30 hearing.

The chair of the five-member commission, Maylinn Smith, has expressed hope that the group will be able to negotiate a consensus proposal. As the commission met Tuesday of this week, however, its two Republican and two Democratic members expressed adamant opposition to their counterparts’ proposals.

The Republicans, Dan Stusek and Jeff Essmann, advanced four maps that involve dividing the state into eastern and western districts, including the population centers of Kalispell and Missoula in the western district, and Billings along with most or all of Bozeman in the east. 

Democrats Kendra Miller and Joe Lamson, in contrast, advanced proposals that group the left-leaning college towns of Bozeman and Missoula together in a southwestern district, and combine the relatively conservative city of Kalispell with eastern Montana in order to keep the two districts balanced by population.

The Republicans argued that the Democratic maps were overreaching.

“I think five of the maps submitted by my cohorts across the aisle fail the constitutional test of compactness and would be subject to challenge in court,” Essmann said.

The Democrats countered that they didn’t believe the GOP proposals do enough to draw districts that would give Democratic candidates a fair chance to win elections.

“The basic problem with all of our colleagues’ maps is none of them are competitive,” Lamson said. “They do not meet the stated goal of not unduly favoring one party over another and trying to create competitive maps.”

Dave’s Redistricting, a website that lets users create and analyze political maps, indicates that a dividing line similar to some of the GOP’s east-west proposals would create a western district that has tilted Republican by a 53-44 margin in recent election cycles and an eastern one that has voted Republican by a 57-40 margin.

In contrast, the site says a dividing line similar to one of the Democrats’ proposals would produce a southwest district that has voted narrowly Democratic in recent elections and a remainder district that has tilted heavily Republican by a 62-35 margin.

The site says that analysis is based on a composite of votes cast by Montanans in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, 2018 and 2020 U.S. Senate races, 2020 election for governor and 2020 election for attorney general.

In addition to the inevitable political considerations, districting commissioners are looking to balance several criteria. Districts are required to be as close to equal population as possible, meet Voting Rights Act requirements, and also be “compact” and “contiguous.”

Commissioners have also expressed desire to minimize the number of places where cities, counties and Indian reservations are split, and have debated whether it’s appropriate to explicitly prioritize electoral competitiveness as they draw districts.

The nine specific maps now on the table are as follows. Montana Free Press has added descriptive names to the commission’s official numbering scheme for illustrative purposes.

REPUBLICAN MAPS

CP 1 — THE EVEN SPLIT 

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/20/23

Republican Commissioner Stusek called this map “as close to an east-west split geographically as you can get, running the numbers,” and noted that it divides the state’s population, as counted by the 2020 census, almost precisely.

The map divides Cascade County, splitting Vaughn, Simms, Ulm and Cascade from Great Falls. It also divides Gallatin County, splitting Manhattan, Three Forks and Amsterdam-Churchill from Bozeman.

CP 3 — MORE OF GALLATIN AND CASCADE IN THE EAST 

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/22/23

Similar to CP 1, this GOP map also divides Cascade and Gallatin counties, but includes Sun River and Vaughn in the same district as Great Falls proper. In exchange, it splits West Yellowstone in southern Gallatin County from Bozeman.

CP 5 — HAVRE (MOSTLY) TO THE WEST 

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/24/23

GOP commissioner Essmann said this map avoids splitting Cascade and Gallatin Counties by keeping them entirely in the eastern district. To compensate, it includes the south side of Havre and the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in the western district.

“It’s not as compact as some of the other proposals, but I think it still meets the compactness test and does not unduly favor a single political party,” he said.

CP 7 — THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN FRONT

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/26/23

Stusek described this map as an effort to divide the state along the Rocky Mountain Front, noting that it keeps every county except for Gallatin intact. This map splits the city of Bozeman, including some pieces of the city north of I-90 in the western district while placing most of the city in the eastern district.

DEMOCRATIC MAPS

CP 2 — THE SOUTHWESTERN DISTRICT

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/21/23 

This map, which divides no counties, groups Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Butte and Bozeman together into a southwestern district. In order to achieve population balance, it places the state’s northwestern corner in the same district as Billings, eastern Montana, and all seven Indian reservations in the state.

CP 4 — KALISPELL TO THE WEST

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/23/23

This map produces a western district that includes all of Gallatin County by splitting Flathead County and allocating its southern half to the eastern district. Whitefish and Columbia Falls are included in the western district.

CP-6 — MOSTLY SOUTHWESTERN 

Interactive map: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/25/23 

Democratic commissioner Miller said this map achieves a perfect population split while almost entirely following county boundaries, except for a small piece of Lake County carved off near Bigfork.

CP-8 — A SOUTHERN DISTRICT

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/27/23 

Miller said this is an example of a “highly competitive” map that divides the state into northern and southern districts. The map splits Sanders County to keep the Flathead Indian Reservation intact, grouping it in with the eastern side of Missoula County, Bozeman, Butte, Helena and parts of Billings.

This map splits Frenchtown and Lolo from the rest of Missoula. It also divides Billings, splitting the Billings Heights and Lockwood from the city’s downtown core.

CP 9 — ANOTHER SOUTHWESTERN DISTRICT

Interactive version: https://app.mydistricting.com/legdistricting/comments/plan/28/23 

This map represents another southwestern district, achieving a slightly more compact district than CP 2 by including Broadwater and Meagher counties and assigning Sweet Grass County to the district that would represent the rest of the state.

It also splits Missoula County, grouping the Wye neighborhood with the city core in the southwestern district, but allocating Frenchtown, Evaro and the portion of the Flathead Reservation that crosses into Missoula County to the second district.

More information about the districting process is available at https://mtredistricting.gov/.

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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.