The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission finalized new state legislative district lines Saturday on a 3-2 vote, with commission chair Maylinn Smith breaking a tie in favor of the panel’s Democrats.
The new House and Senate districts, which will take effect in the 2024 election cycle and remain in place through 2032, are the product of a day-long work session this weekend, reams of public comment — including from the Legislature — and months of pitched negotiations between the commission’s partisan members.
But when it came time for a final vote on the commission’s plan Saturday, those negotiations resulted, as they have often done, in a stalemate. Smith, who has long maintained that the commission’s two Democrats and two Republicans should reach consensus, sided with Democrats. The commission will now file the maps, barring any last-minute technical changes, with the Montana Secretary of State.
“I didn’t see any sense in drawing it out longer,” Smith said Monday. “I didn’t see where we could meet consensus in the future.”
The Districting and Apportionment Commission meets every 10 years following the census to draw new U.S. House and state legislative maps. The maps produced this weekend derive in large part from a tentative Democratic-supported plan passed on a split vote late last year, though with several amendments to reflect bipartisan recommendations from the state Legislature.
The House plan divides Montana’s roughly one million people into 100 roughly population-equal districts, around 60 of which, in an average election year, favor Republicans to varying degrees, with the remainder favoring Democrats. The 50 Senate districts, which each comprise two adjacent House districts, would yield proportionally similar outcomes in that theoretical political environment. A handful of potentially competitive districts would exist in each chamber.
The Legislature is currently divided based on district lines adopted following the 2010 census. Republicans hold two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers, with 68 seats in the House and 34 in the Senate. In sum, the new maps could cost Republicans several seats while still leaving them a sizable majority that at least suggests the GOP’s dominance in recent elections.
The final vote Saturday followed a flurry of amendments from both sides, in addition to the changes recommended by the Legislature. Several came from what Democratic commissioner Kendra Miller dubbed a “Republican wishlist” that would give the GOP more seats. The most significant of these was a redraw of a pair of north-reaching Missoula House districts to create more separation between rural and urban communities in the region. The change would switch a Democratic district to a Republican-leaning district.
“It would have made it more compact and better reflect communities of interest,” Republican commissioner Dan Stusek said.
Smith voted with Stusek and fellow Republican Jeff Essmann on the amendment, which Miller and commissioner Denise Juneau opposed. But the amendment, instead of bringing the commissioners closer together, merely aggravated the stalemate.
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As politically engaged Montanans try to parse the debates swirling around the proposed legislative maps, one way to make sense of the various indices, criteria and metrics under discussion is to look at how they apply to the current map.
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After almost 13 hours of negotiation and debate about now-familiar subjects like competitiveness, proportionality and compactness, the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission has adopted a new map of state Senate districts and set the parameters of the next decade of state legislative elections.
Miller and Juneau were unwilling to support the map with the Missoula amendment. Essmann and Stusek, on the other hand, were unwilling to endorse the map without further concessions.
“I feel a sense of agency on behalf of the Republican leadership and the Republican Party as their voice on this commission,” Stusek said Monday. “I was hopeful that I could have supported the map, but I knew that it would take more than one change to result in something that I could support that I felt was pretty fair and bipartisan.”
That left Smith without the votes to advance any map, a difficult position with deadlines looming. Democrats then proposed to roll back the Missoula amendment. Smith said that, seeing no other option, she voted with the Democrats to undo the change, and then for the final map.
“When it became clear that even with that change the Republicans were not gonna vote for the map, and with that change, the Democrats were not gonna vote for it, I would not have had a map that could go forward,” she said Monday.
Republican commissioners Stusek and Essmann have been critical of the plan leading up to its finalization. They argued Miller and Juneau unreasonably prioritized a political outcome — bringing the Legislature in rough proportion with the two major parties’ share of the vote — over more basic criteria in the Montana Constitution like compactness and contiguity. That criticism has been especially sharp around areas like Missoula, Bozeman and Helena, where Republicans have accused Democrats of drawing lines that combine red-leaning rural areas with solidly blue urban cores to dilute the GOP vote.
“A major constitutional flaw with this map is it involves the treatment of suburban and rural voters differently depending on which city they happen to live around,” Essmann said Saturday.
But Miller said the map is statistically compact, respectful of political subdivisions, representative of Montanans’ political values and legally defensible. She said considering political data in on-the-record debates recognizes the fact that all redistricting criteria and decisions have political implications, acknowledged or not: In a state where Democrats tend to be clustered in urban areas, solely focusing on district compactness yields an unfair advantage for Republicans.
“There are no neutral redistricting criteria,” she said. “They’re not partisan-neutral. None of them are. These are political districts…they have political impacts. The idea that there’d be a non-partisan way to draw political districts is silly.”
Smith noted Monday that despite the flash points, the commissioners did agree on huge chunks of the state’s divisions.
“I wouldn’t have voted for a map if I didn’t think it was fair for Montana, met the mandatory criteria, met our goals and had a record that made it a defensible map,” she said.
Additionally, she called the idea that the map significantly disadvantages Republicans “disingenuous.” The November 2022 election that yielded a GOP supermajority was held using decade-old maps with significant population deviations between supposedly equal districts, she said.
“Again, I appreciate that the Republicans think that this map is disfavorable to them. But they were clearly the majority, and under the matrix we created, they’re clearly still in the majority,” Smith said.
The vote Saturday does not necessarily mean that the new map will take effect as is. State Republican Party leadership has flirted with the idea of litigation, arguing that the map is not adequately compact. Essmann on Saturday went further, arguing that suburban and rural voters were “discriminated against” because of their political affiliations.
The decision to sue would likely fall to the state party or a specific central committee. Montana GOP chair Don Kaltschmidt could not be reached for comment Monday.
A number of bill drafts this session also propose to amend the constitutional language surrounding the commission. While there are few details available, ideas floating around the Legislature range from introducing an algorithm to the apportionment process to providing for final legislative approval of new maps. Any such change to the Constitution would require voter approval.
“I walked away hoping I could be a strict defender of the commission and everything it did, but unfortunately I’m not able to do that,” Stusek said Monday, though he didn’t specifically endorse rejiggering the commission.
Smith said she hopes efforts to fundamentally alter the commission’s process aren’t successful.
“Even though I make it clear I never want to do this process again, I’m a huge fan of the Montana Constitution — it’s a very thoughtful, forward-looking document that does a great job of protecting a variety of recognized interests in Montana, including being one of the earlier states that adopted an independent redistricting commission. That’s the only way you have a chance of creating fair maps.”