We don’t envy the task ahead for the five-member Districting and Apportionment Commission charged with re-drawing the boundaries of the state’s legislative districts for the next decade. Carving up Montana into 100 slices and satisfying every political perspective in the process makes the job done by Solomon seem like a simple coin flip.
But since there’s no way to employ the playground-tested “I split, you choose” method for re-drawing the district lines, we have to trust the commission to best reflect the political demographics of the state as it goes about its business.
But what are those demographics? Is Montana red? Blue? It depends upon which elections you’re basing your color-coding, and the best answer may in fact be a shade of deep purple.
Consider: In presidential elections, Montana is one of the most reliably Republican states in the country. After backing Franklin Roosevelt four times and Harry Truman once, Montana has voted for a Democrat for president just twice since 1952 — for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and for Bill Clinton in his first run, in 1992.
At the same time, Montana has been represented by at least one Democrat in the U.S. Senate for the past century, and for most of those 100 years, including today, both of Montana’s U.S. senators have been Democrats. Our lone seat in the U.S. House has been in Republican hands since 1997, a span of eight straight elections. Of the last 18 gubernatorial elections, Republicans have won 10, Democrats eight.
The Legislature, which is what the commission is most concerned with, has been more reliably, though certainly not exclusively, Republican since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But taken as a whole, the evidence shows that Montanans refuse to be painted with a broad brush either red or blue.
Looking to the redistricting at hand, the latest census figures show that much of Montana’s population growth over the past decade took place in Republican-dominated legislative districts, particularly in the Bozeman area and the Flathead Valley. The most recent legislative elections would also suggest a red tide across the state, though we would caution that 2010 brought to bear a confluence of events that resulted in a GOP sweep of the U.S. House and major gains in the Senate, both typical for the next national election after a new president takes office and not necessarily indicative of a long-term trend.
In some states, there’s no more partisan task than drawing legislative districts, with the results being geographically laughable and representative of nothing save an attempt by the majority party to stay in power. We’ve seen incomprehensible districts earn nicknames like Arizona’s “Flying Giraffe” and Upstate New York’s “Abraham Lincoln Riding a Vacuum Cleaner.”
Montana took redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature with the passage of the new Constitution in 1972, and while it’s impossible to claim politics don’t play a major role in the process, we like the commission’s chances of hammering out something approximating a fair deal for everyone. Commission chair James Regnier is both a retired Montana Supreme Court justice and a professionally trained mediator — a background that we suspect will come in quite handy as the group attempts to accurately reflect our purple state in something more like a lovely lilac hue and less like an ugly bruise.