Montana's Districting and Apportionment Commission advanced a tentative legislative map for public consideration on Thursday, Dec. 1. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / MTFP

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission on Thursday advanced a tentative new configuration of the state’s 100 House districts for consideration by the public. 

Presiding commissioner Maylinn Smith broke a tie in favor of the body’s two Democrats following a week of intense — and often private — negotiations about principles of fairness, district compactness, equal representation and more. Despite Smith’s long-standing aspiration of herding the commission’s partisan members to consensus on a single map, the commissioners made clear Thursday that there was little room left for concessions. 

“We have had some good talks, but I can tell from the feeling in the room that we’re probably just ready to take a vote,” said Democratic commissioner Kendra Miller. “We’re at a standstill today on the maps.”

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission has advanced the House map proposed by the panel’s Democrats. Credit: Courtesy Dave's Redistricting

The map that passed Thursday, which will take effect in the 2024 election cycle, is still subject to change. The public now has the opportunity to weigh in, and the five-member commission may make adjustments based on that feedback. Once the House map is finalized, the commission will decide how to pair the 100 House districts into 50 Senate districts. 

The map yields 60 House seats that, to varying degrees, favor Republicans, and 40 that favor Democrats. Ten of the seats are considered competitive based on metrics the commission adopted earlier in the process, with five that lean Republican and five that lean Democratic. The map’s districts criss-cross fewer city and county lines than those in the proposal advanced by Republicans, and also, Smith determined, meet all the mandatory criteria the commission established last year: Districts must be as equal in population to one another as possible, must be compact and contiguous, and must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects minority representation. 

“I think that the map most meets the criteria,” Smith said. “Again, this is a tentative map, I expect robust public comment on this map, and I welcome that.”

Republicans currently hold 68 of 100 seats in the state House. That supermajority has loomed large over the process. Miller and fellow Democratic commissioner Denise Juneau — who replaced Joe Lamson following his unexpected resignation from the DAC in October — have argued for a map that gives Democrats a voice in the Legislature in rough proportion to their overall share of the vote in the state, while the Republican commissioners have generally argued that it’s better to stick to the base criteria. 

“Proportionality just feels fair to people,” Miller said Thursday. “The reality is we are drawing a state Legislature. We are not drawing county commission districts.”

While the map that passed Thursday doesn’t quite get to perfect proportionality, it does come close, and on paper should allow Democrats to gain ground in the Legislature in future elections. 

The commission began the week with a map from Miller and Juneau and a map from Republican commissioners Dan Stusek and Jeff Essmann. Both maps met the basic legal criteria, meaning most of the ensuing disagreements were of degree, rather than kind. Commissioners jostled over which map kept more political subdivisions like counties and cities intact, which contained more functionally compact districts, and how to weigh concepts like competitiveness and proportionality against other criteria. 

Over several hours each day, the commissioners worked with each other and the chair to push the two proposals closer together with the hope of producing a consensus map by the end of the week. Those negotiations often occurred in one-on-one closed door meetings between Smith and each commissioner, skirting the three-person quorum threshold that would otherwise require the commission to debate on the record. That approach is presumptively legal under the 2014 state Supreme Court’s decision in Willems v. State, which held that Montana’s open meeting law does not apply to “serial one-on-one discussions.” 

“I’ve been meeting one-on-one with individuals to try to figure out where there are challenges between both sides on the map,” Smith told Montana Free Press this week. “I’m just there to try to facilitate change. And then I’ll share with individuals on the other side that this is a point where they’re not in agreement on.”

She said she was careful to comply with open meeting laws, and that no decisions were made in the one-on-one meetings. Rather, they provided a venue for honest mediation without the political theater of a full meeting, she said. 

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The approach had some success. Both sides agreed that the competing maps as presented Thursday were much more similar than they had been on Monday, and commended their colleagues across the proverbial aisle for negotiating in good faith. The partisan commissioners compromised, for example, on a competitive district that includes parts of Whitefish and Columbia Falls, and on a blue-leaning district that includes parts of the historical union strongholds of Butte and Anaconda. 

“I look at these maps, and I see a lot of agreement,” Smith said.

Still, Republicans on Thursday criticized the degree to which Democrats drew favorable districts in the fast-growing cities of Missoula and Bozeman, taking specific issue with a Democratic-leaning district that stretches all the way from Missoula’s Rattlesnake valley to Ronan. They also argued that part of the reason the Republican map had fewer compact and competitive districts than its counterpart was because of ground ceded to the Democrats to achieve greater overall proportionality. 

“We feel like we have compromised around the map, consolidated, and made areas more competitive for our colleagues in areas where maybe they don’t have outright strength, and in our metrics, the few metrics they may technically have a mathematical advantage, the only reason that’s the case is because of areas where we have made concessions,” Stusek said. 

The Republicans ultimately voted against adoption of the Democrats’ map, necessitating Smith’s tie-breaking vote. 

Despite gridlock in the final stages of debate, the commissioners expressed hope that they could come to consensus on the map following public comment and further negotiations. 

After casting her deciding vote, Smith looked around the room for any final comment. 

Essmann turned his microphone on.

“I’m gonna keep working on the map.” 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.