HELENA — The nonpartisan chair of the commission tasked with splitting Montana into two U.S. House districts for the next decade’s worth of federal elections sided with the body’s Republicans Thursday to advance a finalist map proposal, a vote that will likely prove the key decision point in a monthslong process of dividing the state into two congressional districts for the first time since the 1980s.

The map, which the Districting and Apportionment Commission dubbed CP-12, carves Montana into western and eastern districts, with Missoula, Kalispell, Butte and Bozeman grouped into the west along with the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations. Helena, Havre, Livingston and Billings are placed in the eastern district along with the state’s five other tribal reservations.

In order to evenly divide the state’s population, as counted by the 2020 census, the map splits one rural county, Pondera. Portions of the Blackfeet Reservation that overlap with Pondera County, including Heart Butte, are grouped with the western district, as are Dupuyer and Valier. The remainder of the county, including Conrad, is placed in the eastern district.

The commission plans to make an official decision about adopting the map at its next meeting, set for Nov. 9. It faces a Nov. 14 deadline for submitting its ultimate pick to the Montana secretary of state.

The independent commission is composed of two Republicans, two Democrats and chair Maylinn Smith, who was appointed by the Montana Supreme Court. The body has grappled for months with the question of how to fairly draw maps that divide the state’s population in a geographically compact way.

Democrats, who have been the underdog party in most of the state’s recent elections, lobbied for maps that would group western Montana’s urban Democratic strongholds together into a western district where their candidates would have an easier time going toe-to-toe with Republicans. A district that’s competitive in general elections, they said, would force politicians of both parties to advocate for moderate policies and work to win over voters from across the political spectrum.

Many Republicans, in contrast, expressed skepticism about the idea of drawing districts with that type of political outcome in mind, arguing the approach would place an unfair finger on the political scale. Many GOP commenters preferred proposals that would have divided the state along a relatively straight north-south-line, grouping the increasingly blue university town of Bozeman with Billings and deep red stretches of rural eastern Montana.

The commission’s Democratic members criticized the Republican map advanced Thursday as not going far enough to create a truly competitive western district. Instead, they advocated for a map, dubbed CP-11, that would have put Helena and Livingston in the western district, balancing that population by putting most of Flathead County, with the exception of Whitefish, in the east.

The CP-12 proposal, said Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller, creates an “extreme structural advantage” for Republicans where only uniquely overachieving Democratic candidates are capable of winning the western district.

“The problem with, frankly, all of these ranking systems is they assume these candidates are widgets and they’re just all alike. And candidates are not alike. Some candidates relate with the public and some don’t.”  

Commissioner Jeff Essmann

“We create this structural advantage where 75% of the time your candidate is going to win, whether they’re a good or bad candidate,” she said.

Commissioners and public commenters have discussed reams of political data on the competitiveness of the proposed districts, some of it conflicting. However, commissioners said Thursday that two of the last five Democratic candidates to run for the U.S. House in the current statewide district received enough votes within the western district proposed by the CP-12 map to have won it. Neither of those candidates, Kathleen Williams in 2018 nor Rob Quist in the 2017 special election, won the state as a whole.

Republican commissioners argued that history is evidence the CP-12 western district is sufficiently competitive, particularly given the human factor involved in politics.

“The problem with, frankly, all of these ranking systems is they assume these candidates are widgets and they’re just all alike. And candidates are not alike. Some candidates relate with the public and some don’t,” said Commissioner Jeff Essmann. 

Smith, who for months said she hoped to guide the commission’s partisan members to a consensus map, ultimately decided that she would have to cast a tie-breaking vote Thursday. 

Explaining her vote in favor of the GOP proposal, Smith said she appreciated that it included two tribal communities in the western district. She said she wasn’t happy about splitting Pondera County, but noted that Pondera County commissioners had indicated their willingness to see their jurisdiction divided. And, she said, she was persuaded the district would be reasonably winnable by either party.

“I think this is a competitive district in that we’ve shown the right person can win this district,” she said.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.