Montana’s political districting commission winnowed its list of possible U.S. House district maps to nine Tuesday, with little agreement among its bipartisan membership for which is best.
The nine maps were selected from more than 200 submitted by the public or nominated by members of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission. The commission first boiled down the 200 submissions to 70 common variations.
Democrats on the Districting and Apportionment Commission produced five maps focused on linking the state's two flagship universities together in a U.S. House district they say is competitive for candidates of either party, but encompasses several western cities that are must-wins for Democratic candidates.
Republicans produced four maps that generally split the state into western and eastern districts with most of the state's fastest growing county, Gallatin, drawn into the east. Anchored by Bozeman and Montana State University, Gallatin has become a blue stronghold for Democratic party politics, while Eastern Montana is as red as a box of Hot Tamales.
Gallatin’s population, 118,960, has more than doubled since 1990, and increased 29,447 in the last decade. The county accounted for 31% of the state's growth in the recent Census. Gallatin is a big reason why Montana will again have two House districts.
The state’s seven Indian reservations were unevenly divided between the two districts.
Montana is the first state in history to shake its at-large congressional district status and regain a House seat lost in a previous U.S. Census. The state had two districts until the 1990 Census when low population cost Montana its second seat. The state was previously divided between a western district that favored Democrats and an eastern district that was reliably Republican. The GOP has won the state’s at-large district every year since 1996.
The Commission is comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans selected by state legislative leadership and chaired by a fifth member appointed by the Montana Supreme Court.
Commissioner Kendra Miller, of Bozeman, said the five maps submitted by Democrats balanced the population of two U.S. House districts, in some cases down to a one-person difference. Doing so put some neighbors on opposite sides of the political divide.
“Achieving perfect population equality is very difficult. Anyone who was drawing maps knows that and I think that it also means that, you know, somewhere along that line, it's likely that two neighbors are going say, ‘well, why on earth did you put the line there?’” Miller said.
"That's part of the of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and not necessarily one that makes sense to a lot of redistricting lawyers or elections clerks. But we also feel like it's sort of what's been asked of us and sort of eliminates some legal liability if we aren't following political subdivisions perfectly.”
There were objections between the parties over the map finalists, many of which were variations of the multiple maps submitted by the public over the past month and a half.
Democrats selected maps that kept liberal western cities together, the primary ones being Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Great Falls and Missoula, and sometimes Livingston. With the exception of Great Falls, those communities have gone to Democratic candidates for several elections, while the rural landscape surrounding them has favored Republicans. One map selected by Democrats stretched along the southwestern edge of the state stretching from Lake County in the northwest all the way to Big Horn County in the south and dividing the state’s largest community, Billings. Republican strongholds in the northwest like Kalispell and Hamilton, were drawn out.
Republicans put forth maps that were more like the Montana congressional districts of old. Commissioner Dan Stusek proposed a western district with the spine of the Rocky Mountains as the boundary, at least until Gallatin County, where Manhattan and Three Forks were lumped into the west and Bozeman, Belgrade and Big Sky were penciled into the east. Stusek’s preferred map divided the state west and east with the western district constituting a third of the state geographically and trimming the western nubs of Gallatin and Cascade counties from the rest of the counties which were included in the eastern district.
Commissioner Jeff Essmann offered a map similar to Stusek’s one-third, two-thirds division, but Essmann included the southernmost tail of Gallatin County anchored by West Yellowstone, in the west. The boundary was mostly a north to south line with a few kinks to accommodate of the county boundaries.
Essmann said he didn’t think the five maps selected by the Democrats on the commission were compact enough.
“I was a little surprised when this commission met that we didn't raise our hand and take an oath to observe the Constitution as I did when when I entered the Legislature, but I did take it that time and I still feel bound by it,” Essmann said. “I think five of the maps that were submitted by my cohorts across the aisle, failed the constitutional test to compactness and would be subject to challenge in court.”
Democratic Commissioner Joe Lamson said the districts selected by Republicans weren’t competitive and he wouldn’t support them.
“The basic problem with all our colleagues’ maps are none of them are competitive,” Lamson said. “They do not meet the stated goal of not unduly favoring one party over another and trying to create better maps. For that reason, we there can't really support them because they're not meeting the criteria.”
Chairwoman Maylinn Smith, a mediator by profession, gave her tie-breaking vote to both the Republican maps and the Democratic maps, allowing all nine to go forward.
The public will have a chance to view the maps online starting Wednesday and comment of the merits of each.