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Montana high court appoints new redistricting chairperson

December 16, 2020 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court unanimously appointed on Wednesday tribal attorney Maylinn Smith as the chair of the state’s political Districting and Apportionment Committee.

The appointment was made as the state awaits data results from the 2020 U.S. Census, which may yield a second U.S. House district.

Smith previously served an associate professor at the University of Montana Law School and as a civil prosecutor for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She replaces Sheila Stearns, who resigned because of health issues, the Billings Gazette reported.

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The five-member Districting and Apportionment Committee draws the state’s legislative districts for the upcoming decade based on population data from the most recent U.S. Census. The chairperson is the tiebreaker for the committee that comprises otherwise of two Republicans and two Democrats.

Smith said she wants to avoid using her role as tiebreaker and instead build consensus between the partisan members.

“I view this as someone who can facilitate a good process and recognize the strengths of each of the committee members, and appreciate the differences in viewpoint,” Smith said. “Because to me, that’s how you reach fair resolution, to be able to listen to both sides. I can do that. I’ve done that my entire life.”

In previous decades, the U.S. Census would have been delivered for certification by Dec. 31, giving states an indication as to whether changes were likely regarding the amount of U.S. House representation.

But delays due to the pandemic have pushed certification until at least 2021. The U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that the results would be filed some time after Jan. 26.

There have been signs that Montana could receive a second House seat with the recent Census. The state’s population just before the Census was estimated to be larger than Rhode Island’s, which currently has the smallest population among the states with two House districts, the Gazette reported. Montana’s at-large district is the most populated district of its kind in the nation.

If those estimates are affirmed with the Census data, Montana would likely overtake Rhode Island’s seat and turn the New England state into an at-large district.

It has been 30 years since Montana lost its second House district after the 1990 Census. Before that, the state was divided into east and west House districts. The east district typically voted Republican while the west district typically voted Democratic, the Gazette reported.

Montana would be the first state in the U.S. to regain a House seat after being demoted to an at-large district.