HELENA - Political scientist Craig Wilson has taken a new look at the drawing of Montana's legislative districts and says the numbers tell the story: Democrats went overboard in giving themselves an edge when they rewrote the boundaries in 2004.
"Undoubtedly in the past, there has been gerrymandering that has occurred," said Wilson, who's on the faculty at Montana State University Billings. "I just don't know if there have been results on this scale, when you look at the numbers."
The numbers to which Wilson refers are the high volume of state Senate and House districts that have a fewer-than-average number of people and have been won consistently by Democrats since 2004, when the districts took effect.
If you want to benefit your political party when drawing district boundaries, you try to spread as many of your voters among more districts and pack more of your opponents' voters into fewer districts.
Wilson and his son, Evan, took a comprehensive look at election results in 1994 - the first year for new districts that were drawn by a Republican-controlled commission - and 2004 and 2006, the first elections in districts redrawn by a commission controlled by Democrats.
Their conclusion is that the Democrat-controlled commission did a much more thorough job of cramming Republican-leaning voters into fewer districts and spreading Democratic-leaning voters among more districts.
Before we get into the numbers and the arguments, however, a brief review of party control of the Legislature and district-drawing in Montana in the past two decades:
Seats redrawn each decade
Montana's state Senate and House seats are redrawn every 10 years after the national census, by the five-member Districting and Apportionment Commission.
The commission has two Democrats, two Republicans and a fifth member chosen either by the other four members or, if they can't agree, the Montana Supreme Court.
In 1990, Republicans had a majority on the commission. In 1994, the first year that commission's districts took effect, Republicans picked up 25 seats in the House and Senate, seizing huge majorities in both chambers. They held those majorities for the 10 years that those districts were in effect.
In 2004, the first election with districts drawn by the Democrat-controlled commission, Democrats picked up nine seats, won a 27-23 majority in the Senate and forged a 50-50 tie in the House.
The Wilsons' analysis notes that 72 of the 150 new districts have a population variance of more than 4 percent, meaning the population of those districts was 4 percent to 5 percent above or below the norm of about 9,000 people.
Of the 12 Senate seats that had 4 percent fewer people, Democrats have won nine of them. Of the eight Senate seats with 4 percent more people, Republicans won six of them.
This pattern was even more pronounced in the House seats, Wilson discovered.
In the 26 House districts with 4 percent fewer people, Democrats won 22 of those seats in 2004 and 23 of them in 2006. In the 26 House districts that had 4 percent above the population norm, Republicans won 17 of those seats in 2004 and 19 in 2006.
"That says to me that the districts were drawn with pretty close attention to partisanship," Craig Wilson said. "The issue becomes, if by drawing these districts, you have a commission that is putting fewer Democrats in districts to elect more Democrats and more Republicans in districts to elect fewer Republicans, is that fair?"
The same pattern of spreading your voters across more districts and packing opponents into fewer districts did not appear to occur with the 1990 commission, Wilson concluded.
The 1990 commission created only 29 House seats with a population variance of more than 4 percent, rather than 52.
In those with 4 percent fewer people, Republicans did win seven of the nine seats. But they also won 14 of the 20 that had a plus-4 percent population variance.
The architect of the 2000 commission's districts, Democrat Joe Lamson, has always acknowledged that the commission drew a few more districts that were advantageous to Democrats.
But Lamson said the population variances, which are legal, aren't that big of a deal. Even at 4 percent, it's only 350 people above the 9,000-person norm for the district, he said.
The proper yardstick by which to measure fair legislative districts is whether the election results accurately reflect the politics of the state - and by that measure the new districts succeed, he said.
Montana is closely split between Democrats and Republicans, Lamson said, and the districts reflect that reality, with Democrats controlling the state Senate by narrow margins in 2004 and 2006, Republicans holding a one-vote edge in the House in 2006 and the 2004 House being tied.
"The 1990 plan was the only one (since the new 1972 constitution) where one party dominated every election," Lamson said, arguing that it was skewed in favor of Republicans. "As this (new) one has come out, you don't get any closer."
Lamson said the 1990 districts favored Republicans in a way that had nothing to do with population variance: They hooked up suburban areas with rural areas, making those districts Republican.
The 2000 commission hooked up more suburban areas with urban areas, making them "swing" districts, or Democrat-leaning, Lamson said.
Regardless of what one thinks of the fairness of Montana's current legislative districts, they'll be around until 2012.
Members of a new Districting and Apportionment Commission will be chosen by leaders of the 2009 Legislature, starting the process anew after the 2010 Census.
Wilson said he hopes the new commission will do things fairly and that one way to ensure fairness is have districts with as little population "variance" as possible.