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Rules for drawing new Montana legislative districts adopted

Rules for drawing new Montana legislative districts adopted

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission on Tuesday adopted rules to guide how it carves up the state’s legislative districts once data from the 2020 Census becomes available, including a controversial goal of drawing “competitive” districts.

The meeting was a continuation of the commission’s work on July 8 and 9, during which it received public testimony on the proposed criteria and established rules for drawing up Montana’s new U.S. House district. The criteria it chose Tuesday for the 150 state House and Senate districts differ somewhat from the federal redistricting rules, and the commission will have longer to work out the legislative map.

The new federal electoral map must go into effect in time for the 2022 elections. The legislative districts don’t need to be finalized until the 2024 elections.

The day-long meeting consisted of a gradual process of give-and-take between the commission’s two Democrats and two Republicans. They ultimately settled on mandatory criteria to keep districts “as equal in population as is practicable,” with the average difference from the ideal population number to be no more than 1 percent. Exceptions are allowed for complying with the federal Voting Rights Act, or to maintain political subdivisions or abide by other constitutional requirements.

The commission chairwoman, Maylinn Smith, serves as the tiebreaking vote in the event of a deadlock, and sided with Democrats to include the discretionary goal of creating “competitive” districts in the list of discretionary criteria for the redistricting process.

That language was previously included in the discretionary criteria when the commission last met to hammer out rules for congressional districts. But Republicans objected to its inclusion in the legislative criteria, arguing that it will effectively force the commission to inject political outcomes into the map-drawing process.

“If we go down that road, I think it’s going to make it harder for us to reach consensus and we’re going to have enough things to argue about based on the criteria without having a desired political outcome branded clearly at the top, which will do nothing but inflame a lot of people on both sides of the aisle,” said Jeff Essman, one of the two Republican commissioners.

Democrats maintained that more competitive districts result in elected officials more representative of their constituents, and more likely to actively campaign for their votes.

“If you want to dampen down the noise in our society, and the partisanship, one of the ways to do that is to increase competitiveness,” Democratic commissioner Joe Lamson said.

Smith ultimately sided with Democrats on the proposal, which passed with a 3-2 vote. She argued that the change was a slight one, referring to another discretionary goal, ensuring no party is “unduly” favored by the districts, which the commission had largely agreed on.

“I think if you draw districts that do not unduly favor a political party, that should by its very nature create competitiveness in those districts,” she said.

The public comment opportunity at the end of the meeting included a more than two-hour procession of speakers, many of whom attacked the Democratic members of the committee and stated their disappointment over the adoption of the “competitive” language. They also argued that the committee had offered insufficient public comment.

The commission’s agenda had indicated that no testimony would be given, as the meeting was a continuation of the July 8 and 9 meetings, which included five hours of public testimony. Tuesday’s public comment on other topics related to redistricting was held as scheduled at the end of the meeting.

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