Montana commission torn over criteria for voting districts
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A commission tasked with drawing Montana’s legislative districts got caught up Friday in heated hours-long debate over what criteria to use to divide the state into two U.S. House districts.
The commission is made up of two Republican appointees — Dan Stusek and Jeff Essmann — and two Democratic appointees — Kendra Miller and Joe Lamson — and a nonpartisan chairperson, Maylinn Smith. Party-appointed commissioners agreed the redistricting process should not favor either party, but disagreed on how to achieve that goal.
Miller and Lamson said the districts should be drawn to be competitive and capable of being won by either party, while Stusek and Essmann pushed back against the idea of creating a “fair” map.
“How are we going to know if a map is fair? That is subject to so many different interpretations,” Essmann said.
The Census Bureau announced earlier this year that based on the most recent census count Montana would regain the second U.S. House seat it lost nearly 30 years ago, thanks to the state’s growing population.
The announcement meant the commission is tasked this year with drawing lines dividing the state into two U.S. House districts based on detailed population figures that are expected to be released by the bureau next month.
Elections for the new seat will be held November 2022. Four candidates — two Democrats and two Republicans — have already entered the race for the second U.S. House seat. Democrats have not held the state’s at-large U.S. House seat since 1996.
Republicans hold almost all statewide offices and majorities in the state House and Senate after a decade-long surge.
When Montana last had two U.S. House seats, the state was divided into a western and eastern district, with the western district often favoring Democrats.
The sprawling state is home to many diverse communities with disparate interests, including Native American reservations, conservative-leaning rural farmlands, and several towns including liberal-leaning Missoula in the western half of the state.
While the commission awaits the full population data, they met Thursday and Friday to discuss what criteria would be used to determine the state’s new districts.
The commissioners arrived at a set of mandatory criteria and goals for the redistricting process after several hours of back-and-forth.
The mandatory goals follow the dictates of state and federal law, and include keeping district population as equal as possible; drawing compact and contiguous districts; and protecting minority voting rights.
The goals adopted by the commission include drawing districts that do not unduly favor a political party, and minimize dividing cities, towns, counties and Native American reservations between districts, as well as communities with a shared interest, such as farming regions.
Members of the public weighed in on the criteria Thursday, with many arguing in favor or against making the districts “fair” and “competitive.”
Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell spoke against using those terms as metrics for the districts, saying the words are “extremely subjective” and lack a clear definition.
“They’re really just feel-good words and they’re not in the dictates of our constitution or in our Montana code,” Skees said.
But Several Democratic lawmakers spoke in favor of making competitive districts a central tenet of the process.
Democratic Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula won her first race by less than 100 votes, and said competitive districts make for elected officials who must work harder to win races, forcing them to meet with more voters and become more educated.
“Make candidates work for it. Make them go out there and talk to every one of those constituents,” Sands said.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.