The line that once divided Montana into two U.S. House districts, east from west, is 26-years gone and yet still visible to Joe Lamson like an old surgical scar.
A political cartographer of sorts, Lamson was tracing the old boundary last week, as once again the possibility has been raised of Montana regaining a U.S. House seat. The Helena resident has twice helped redraw state legislative districts. Lamson was state director for Democrat Pat Williams when Montana went from two districts to one in the 1992 election, prompting a showdown between Williams and Eastern Montana Republican Rep. Ron Marlenee. Williams prevailed.
“It would be historic,” Lamson said. “I don’t think any state has gained a seat after going down to one.”
The political consulting firm Election Data Services recently reported the possibility of Montana gaining a congressional seat after the 2020 U.S. Census. The forecast assumes that Montana’s population will continue growing at its current pace, in which case the state would have enough people for two House districts with about 2,400 people to spare.
Other models based on longer-term growth trends suggested Montana would once again come up short and remain the most populated House district in the country. At just more than one million people, Montana’s at-large district is by far the nation’s most populated and nearly twice the population size of the two House districts representing Rhode Island, which are the nation’s smallest.
Montana’s political parties have argued for three decades that by having only one House seat the state is underrepresented and that the size of the district — more than a 10-hour car ride east to west — is unworkable.
The old line, which paralleled the rocky Mountain Front, ran south toward Livingston. It put Republicans in control of the east and Democrats in control of the west.
Montana’s interests both socially and economically east to west are too different to be represented by just one person, said Jeff Essmann, a state legislator from Billings and past chairman of the Montana Republican Party. Two representatives would be significant regardless of how the seats were politically aligned.
“The gains for the state, No. 1, would be having more representation on more committees in Congress and that’s really important to the State of Montana because our economies are very diverse,” Essmann said. “Just sitting on the Agriculture Committee and Natural Resources, or whatever, the Armed Services Committee, just doesn’t cover the bases anymore.”
The second important gain would be having more congressional staff. Representatives in the House, regardless of the size of their districts, receive a fixed number of staff and funding for a handful of offices. There aren’t enough resources to put an office in each of Montana’s seven largest cities, let alone the next tier of rural hubs like Glasgow, Sidney and Miles City.
Former Rep. Williams recalled that in a strange twist, his travel budget actually decreased after he became the state’s only representative. Williams had represented the western district, which ended in Bozeman.
“Back then the travel budget was based on your distance from Washington, D.C. So the other side of Miles City was closer to D.C. than Bozeman, and as a result, according to rule, I needed less money,” Williams said.
The consequence of having one district representing Montana is that a large segment of the population never gets its preferences represented in the House, Williams said.
Both after the census of 2000 and 2010, Montana appeared close to gaining a second seat. And after the 1990 census, the state sued, arguing that its citizens were underrepresented.
Montana challenged the square-root formula used to determine which states received additional seats. There are 435 House seats. After every state gets one, the next 385 are awarded according to mathematical formula. In October 1991, a federal panel blocked national redistricting so Montana could make its case for a new formula.
The state's case was argued by then-Montana Assistant Attorney General Beth Baker, who is now a judge on Montana's Supreme Court.
The argument was that Montanans were being denied the Constitutional right to equal representation. That year, the 1990 Census determined the ideal congressional district would have 572,000 people. Montana's at-large district had 800,000 residents.
It didn’t matter. The same mathematical formula used since 1941 was again applied, as it still is. That formula has left Montana a few thousand people short of a second seat for going on 30 years. The state has never grown fast enough to beat the math.
“If Congress added another three or four seats, they would go to places like New York and California. We just can't make that climb enough,” Williams said.