While the partisan skirmishing promises to continue into next year, the district map that will help guide the balance of power in the state Legislature for the next decade took a major step toward completion Thursday night.
Following several changes that redrew districts affecting Belgrade, the Whitefish area, Jefferson County and a large swath of Eastern Montana, the state’s Districting and Apportionment Commission approved a modified version of the Democrat-drawn House district map it selected two weeks ago.
The commission also voted on a Senate map formed by pairing up adjacent House districts to form 50 Senate seats — but with almost no public explanation of how the Senate map came together. It was passed on a pair of 3-2 votes at the end of a more than 12-hour video conference meeting. The maps, which could still get tweaked before they're finalized, will go into effect for the 2024 elections.
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Maylinn Smith, the nonpartisan chair of the commission, acknowledged Friday morning that the process isn't perfect, but felt the mostly-final map included significant compromises reached over months of working with the two parties' representatives.
"I think we got as close as we were going to get," Smith said. "And perhaps if I'd had another month that I could worked on it I could have worked them closer to consensus, but we're in a time crunch. We had to move forward so we could get a map out for public comment."
Reached after the marathon meeting wrapped up Thursday night, commissioners representing both Republicans and Democrats were in no mood for a victory lap. Dan Stusek, appointed by the GOP to serve as one of their two commissioners on the five-member body, noted that in a perfectly average election year, Republicans could expect to win 60 seats on the new map, compared to the 68 they now control.
“I’m disappointed with the misleading thought that this was a consensus map,” Stusek said. “Democrats, on this map, essentially drew all of Montana’s seven urban counties.”
Many Republicans have also criticized the process for weighing discretionary goals not included in the commission’s mandatory criteria, such as keeping districts compact. But Democrats argue that considering competitiveness and whether a map exacerbates GOP majorities results in a fairer outcome for voters.
Commissioner Kendra Miller, appointed by the Democratic Party, stressed that even though their party’s map won the tie-breaking vote two weeks earlier, Thursday saw at least one change that likely flips a competitive seat to a safely Republican one.
“I wouldn’t say it largely went our way,” Miller said. Toward the end of the meeting, she had reiterated her concern that while Democrats represent around 43% of Montana’s voters in a typical election, they would almost certainly get less representation in the Legislature than that proportion under the new map.
“This is in no way maximizing anything for Democrats,” she said. “So let’s be really clear: there’s no stunt being pulled. We’re not gaining any advantage."
The Senate pairings were quickly passed on a pair of 3-2 votes, with Smith siding with Democrats on a 21-seat slate of Senate districts, and siding with Republicans on the other 29 districts. Thursday’s meeting followed similar lines as the commission's previous work session, with long recesses for one-on-one negotiations to avoid a quorum, and interludes of publicly conducted discussions and votes while the cameras rolled.
Smith said the pairings were part of the House map discussions that took place over the course of the day. At one point she thought consensus was within reach, but ultimately the two sides deadlocked but agreed to move their respective slates of pairings to get it done.
"I didn't think it was as necessary to go through the process of ... how they decided to make those pairings," Smith said. "That's what the public comment period next week is for. I just needed to get a map out."
Because the House map was amended during the work session, neither it nor the Senate map were immediately available for public review Thursday night. Legislative staff said both would be provided on the commission’s website in the coming days.
Both Miller and Stusek said the Senate pairings created 18 safely Democratic districts and 29 safely Republican districts, with three districts meeting the commission’s definition of “competitive.”
Before the deadlocks began, the commission’s five members unanimously passed several minor tweaks requested by the GOP. One redrew several district lines in Great Falls, and another sought to improve travel throughout a district that now stretches from outside Miles City to Lewistown.
But Smith ultimately cast the deciding vote on several proposals that evolved over the course of the meeting. Many drew from testimony offered by politicians, party activists and voters during a public hearing the weekend before.
Similar to last year’s effort to draw a congressional map, Montana’s fastest growing county has arguably stirred up the biggest hornet’s nest during the legislative process. Gallatin County is one of the few places in the state where Republicans have ceded ground on their way to dominating the statehouse.
Republicans turned out in force for the public hearing last weekend to harshly criticize the proposed map’s treatment of Belgrade, which it split into two different districts. One would be safely Democratic, spanning much of downtown Bozeman and reaching through the northern portion of its smaller neighbor. The other was a Republican-leaning competitive district including the southern part of Belgrade and the I-90 corridor.
Republican commissioner Jeff Essmann offered a change that keeps Belgrade in one piece.
“It is the home of a class AA school now, it is dealing with a lot of issues with growth, it’s definitely a community and deserves to be kept whole,” Essmann said. “We heard that from the public and I believe that desire should be respected.”
The change shifted the partisan makeup of the map, flipping the GOP-leaning competitive seat to a likely Republican seat. Noting that Belgrade is now the state’s eighth-largest city, Miller had earlier suggested their proposal could quickly lead to a district that is overpopulated. As of the 2020 census, Gallatin County contained many of the most over-populated House districts in Montana, including four of the top five.
"We certainly feel that the public record shows there are differences of opinion about what communities of interest are," Miller said. "The importance of the integration with Bozeman is there as well and we will oppose the motion."
Of three tie-breaking votes on House map amendments, the Belgrade change was the only one in which Smith sided with the Republicans. On Friday, Smith said it was a difficult decision for her, balancing the high growth in the area and the stated desire by rural communities to remain separate from urban and suburban communities.
"That one I will tell you was more of a challenge to me," she said, "sort of weighing the comment that we'd gotten expressly indicating that desire to not be part of Bozeman, from Belgrade."
Similarly, the Democrat-heavy resort town of Whitefish is also roughly the size of an ideal House district, and Republicans initially sought to avoid carving it up.
But when the commission’s nearly week-long work session two weeks ago came down to a vote between two maps from either side, Whitefish was one of the few areas where they saw consensus. The proposed maps offered by both sides at the end of that week placed Whitefish partially in a Democratic district that included most of the northern third of Flathead County, with a portion of the city in a competitive district that stretched east to include Columbia Falls.
Yet last weekend it emerged as perhaps the most frequent target of criticism from Republicans who spoke during the public hearing. Acknowledging the outcry from his party, Stusek offered an amendment that largely contained Whitefish within a single district, which would have restored a Republican-dominated House district for Columbia Falls and the surrounding area.
“They have different taxes in those communities, one is more blue-collar versus a resort town, different activities and they’ve kind of historically always had these seats,” Stusek said. He also noted that Democrats had succeeded in keeping the relatively blue islands of Livingston and Havre intact on the draft map.
Miller pointed out they had reached consensus on that area last week, a point that Smith also reiterated in an interview Friday.
"I was not that interested in moving back from a consensus position," Smith said. Referring to public comments suggesting the two communities shouldn't be grouped together, she added, "the differences are probably not as stark as they think between those two communities, and I don't think high school rivalry is one of the one of the criteria we use in determining that."
The Democratic stronghold of Missoula was also a major sticking point for the parties. Since the initial proposals were unveiled in August, Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to pack their voters into the city’s urban core, while the GOP argued the other side was using meandering districts to outnumber rural votes with those of the more liberal downtown areas.
The map going into Thursday’s meeting had all but one district that overlaps with Missoula as either comfortably Democratic or leaning that way. Meanwhile, Bitterroot Republicans had complained that Ravalli County’s solidly GOP districts were overpopulated, effectively reducing their voting power.
The Republican commissioners initially suggested lopping off a chunk of Ravalli and tying it to a district that includes Lolo and Clinton in Missoula County, to create another Republican district. They later abandoned that proposal and suggested uniting Lolo with other parts of southern Missoula County to create a more conservative district.
Stusek called that proposal a “meager attempt at what is a slightly better version” of the district that wound up in the map chosen earlier this month. Essmann borrowed from a discretionary goal that Democrats have consistently pointed to.
“I think that the map that was adopted unduly favors the Democratic Party with respect to the county of Missoula, where there will be effectively no elected Republican voice,” he said.
But Miller responded that the proposal wouldn’t improve any criteria, didn’t appear to be in response to any public comments and “makes it just a little better for Republicans.”
Smith again sided with Democrats, voting to keep that part of the map as-is.
The commission opted to wait until Monday to address so-called “holdover senators,” those who were elected to four-year terms this year, meaning when the new map is used the district they were elected to serve will no longer exist. That part of the meeting is scheduled to resume Dec. 19 at noon.
Thursday’s 12-hour work session didn’t include opportunities for public comment, but a remote-only public hearing on the latest map proposal is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 9 a.m.
And while many of the lines on the new map are likely settled, opportunities remain for the commission to tweak it. At the end of next week’s public comment period, the commission will hold another work session and take a final vote to direct staff to transmit the finished product to the legislature.
Once the session is underway, legislators will get another chance to articulate their thoughts, which the commission can accept or reject before sending a final version to the Secretary of State.
For more information on the commission’s work or to request access to the public hearing via Zoom, visit mtredistricting.gov.