The looming redistricting fight in Montana spilled over into the Legislature on Tuesday, as Republican lawmakers rewrote and quickly passed a bill to direct the work of the state’s redistricting commission — a move that one Democratic lawmaker decried as “fully unconstitutional.”
The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte's desk.
With census data finally trickling out of the federal government after a delay caused by the pandemic, Montana's five-person Districting and Apportionment Committee is tasked with drawing new political districts — including a new Congressional district, the boundaries of which must be in place by the 2022 elections.
“I think people are concerned that we might not get fair districts, we might get some very gerrymandered districts, and this would just make sure the districts are drawn fairly,” Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said during Tuesday's free conference committee on House Bill 506.
HB 506 is sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls. Previously, his bill had established that voters who turn 18 on or shortly before Election Day cannot receive or turn in a ballot until they officially reach voting age. It also cleaned up language related to post-election county canvasses and repealed an outdated piece of statute.
In a free conference committee, however, anything can be added to a bill as long as it fits under the title. HB 506’s title, in part, was “An act generally revising election laws.”
Fitzpatrick’s amendment adds to criteria for the congressional redistricting process that he said is designed to result in less gerrymandering of district boundaries.
It includes requirements like minimizing the number of counties and cities split into different districts and keeping districts compact and true to political boundaries, like county lines. It also establishes an order of priority for those criteria.
But Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, argued state courts have repeatedly ruled the Legislature does not have a role in the redistricting process.
“I think they’re trying to cast doubt on the redistricting process, and they’re trying to give the Secretary of State and other people the commission interacts with tools to put roadblocks in the way of establishing a fair redistricting map,” Bennett said afterward.
The Montana Constitution requires the Legislature to appoint four members of the redistricting commission, with the majority and minority parties in each chamber selecting one member. If the four members can't agree on a fifth member, the Supreme Court makes that decision.
Once the commission carves up the electoral map, they submit it to the Legislature for input, and then officially file it with the Secretary of State.
Bennett pointed to a law passed during the 2003 legislative session that included many of the same proposals now in Fielder's bill. That law was tossed out by a state district court judge in Lewis and Clark County, who found that the process outlined in the Constitution didn't need to be implemented by the Legislature.
Democrats on Tuesday also argued that keeping the partisan Legislature out of the redistricting process was one of the main reasons the 1972 Constitutional Convention was held in the first place.
"We did have issues prior to that, in developing districts that really met the really basic requirement of one man one vote, or one person one vote," Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said during the debate on the House floor.
Speaking after the bill passed a final Senate vote, Fitzpatrick argued that because his amendment is limited to the Congressional redistricting process, he expects any challenges to the law will wind through the federal courts.
"I think the distinguishing factor is those (past challenges) pertain really to state-level redistricting, we're talking about federal," Fitzpatrick said. "I think it gives us grounds for a separate basis for litigation."
Compared with most bills the Legislature considers, the changes to the commission's guiding statutes flew through the Capitol with lightning speed on Tuesday. The bill in its current form first appeared in a free conference committee in the morning, then cleared both procedural votes in both legislative chambers on the same day — effectively taking about eight hours from its genesis to being bound for the governor's desk.