HELENA — As a five-member panel prepares to redraw Montana's legislative districts, it's easy to see which areas should get more seats at the political table: Bozeman, the Flathead Valley and suburban Billings and Missoula.
And the likely losers? Great Falls and just about anywhere north and east of Great Falls, with the exception of the booming oil patch area around Sidney.
Yet when it comes to predicting how these shifts will affect political control of the Montana Legislature for the next decade, the answers aren't as clear.
Montana's biggest population growth spots this past decade — and likely gainers of legislative seats — are mostly in areas that are usually Republican strongholds: the Flathead Valley, suburban Bozeman and suburban Billings.
Seven of the 20 fastest-growing 100 House districts are within or cross into Bozeman's Gallatin County, and another three are in the Flathead, where Republicans control all districts; four more are on the outskirts of Billings.
Democrats, however, have ruled the roost in several fast-growing districts in Missoula, Helena and urban Bozeman.
Joe Lamson, one of five people on the Districting and Apportionment Commission that will redraw the boundaries that define new districts for 10 years beginning in 2014, said newly drawn districts in Montana's fast-growing urban areas can, and should, cut either Democratic or Republican.
"The nearer a district is to the urban area, the more they can share similar communities of interest (with the city)," he said. "Those can be a swing district, that goes for either Republicans or Democrats. Those are areas that either party can win."
Lamson, a Democrat from Helena, also sat on the 2000 commission, which has been criticized by Republicans for drawing districts that favored Democrats during the past decade.
Republicans controlled the Montana Legislature for 10 straight years under districts drawn by the prior commission formed in 1990. Lamson has said he thought those lines didn't reflect the close political split in Montana, which often elects Democrats to statewide offices.
Under the lines drawn by the 2000 commission, Democrats won control of the Montana Senate in 2004, for the first time since 1993, and forged a tie in the House.
Yet they haven't won outright electoral control of the Senate or House since then and currently are in the minority in both houses. Republicans hold a 68-32 majority in the Montana House, thanks to a thrashing they gave the Democrats last election, in which they picked up 18 seats.
Lamson, the architect of the 2000 plan, said he thinks the current redistricting panel again should consider creating swing districts that encompass both suburban and urban areas.
"We're not a state that either party has a lock on," he said. "People are fond of saying it's a purple state; it can go either way (to Democrats or Republicans). We're going to try to put together a map that reflects that, so either party can go out and make their case and win control of the Legislature."
Yet Linda Vaughey, a Republican member of the five-member panel, said creating swing districts should not be high on the commission's list of priorities.
The most important goal, she said, is to create House districts that contain as close as possible the ideal number of residents for a district — 9,894 people — and that represent actual communities and neighborhoods.
Vaughey noted that in nearly 40 of the 100 districts, the population exceeds or is under the ideal number by double-digit percentages, with some as much as 40 percent or 50 percent higher than the mean.
"That says to me, the closer we can stay to the ideal number, the better it will hold for 10 years, with the least amount of difference at the end of the cycle," she said. "I've been concentrating on the criteria that we've adopted, to try to most fairly guarantee adherence to a one-person, one-vote representation — irrespective of the political leanings of any future district."
The commission's criteria say each new House district shall deviate from the ideal population figure no more than 3 percent, up or down. The criteria also say the panel shall draw "compact and contiguous" districts, protect minority voting rights and keep "communities of interest" intact.
While Republicans currently control many of the high-growth districts, where additional seats are likely as of 2014, they also have the dubious distinction of holding sway in the rural areas that are losing population.
These areas — the northern Montana Hi-Line, central Montana and southeast Montana — will see fewer districts that become geographically larger and may have to include portions of urban areas to reach their ideal population number.
Yet some urban, Democratic districts in Butte, Great Falls, Helena and even Bozeman also have lost population, possibly diluting the power of Democrats to win those districts.
Lamson said the population shifts may look big on paper, but aren't that dramatic when it comes to creating seats. In the Flathead or Gallatin areas, for example, the population boom may create one to 1-½ seats in each region.
Whatever the political outcome of the new districts, Lamson said one trend seems to remain constant: the shift of population from Eastern Montana to urban and suburban areas, primarily in the western part of the state.
"The pattern has followed the same pattern that we've seen for decades now," he said. "Rural, Eastern Montana continues to lose population and Western Montana grows in particular areas, such as Missoula and the Flathead corridor. As areas grow, they get more representation. As they lose, they get less representation."