The debate over how to draw Montana’s new congressional district — along with its 150 legislative districts — began to take shape Thursday, as a bipartisan state commission discussed priorities for its once-per-decade redistricting process.
The meeting of the state Districting and Apportionment Commission provided one of the first public glimpses of how the partisan debate will shake out over the next few years, with the April announcement that Montana will gain a second congressional district in 2022 pushing the stakes higher.
The five-person body comprises two members from each major political party, plus a nonpartisan member selected by the state Supreme Court.
State and federal law sets limits on the process, like requiring that districts be nearly equal in population, contiguous and relatively compact. But Republicans and Democrats on the committee advanced competing proposals for the other criteria that will guide the process.
Republicans argued, in part, that priority should be given to existing political boundaries, like county lines and school district borders.
“Montana has been in a distinct minority with respect to ignoring political subdivisions, whether they’re cities, towns, counties or Indian reservations, and I think it’s time for that to change,” said Jeff Essmann, one of the Republican commissioners.
Redistricting criteria fall into two categories — mandatory and discretionary. While listing it among their discretionary criteria for legislative redistricting, Democrats focused heavily on the need for “a reasonable share of competitive districts capable of being won by either party.”
"Often people who come from competitive districts are more likely to compromise and be consensus builders and have to spend more time talking to the entirety of their district, rather than just their primary base," said Kendra Miller, one of the Democratic commissioners.
Republicans largely resisted that proposal, arguing that making districts more competitive would come at the cost of being fair to those communities. Montana GOP representative Chris Shipp offered a hypothetical scenario of heavily liberal district in downtown Missoula being altered to accommodate that goal.
“It wouldn’t be fair to the people in the heart of Missoula to say we need to make this a competitive district,” Shipp said during public comment.
Both sides offered support for respecting the boundaries of Native American reservations and communities. During public comment, Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, of Crow Agency, noted the state Legislature has only recently achieved Indigenous representation proportional to the state's Native American population.
"We have come to a point in Montana history that we have now been able to transcend and have equitable representation at the state level," she said. "... It's important to ensure that opportunity remains for Native Americans."
Disputes also emerged around setting the maximum deviation from the ideal population of each legislative district. So for House districts, that would mean the state’s population divided by 100 seats. Democrats favor having more flexibility by setting the limit at plus or minus 5%, while Republicans argued that a 1% deviation is more appropriate.
The full list of proposed redistricting criteria is available on the commission's website.
A controversial law passed in the final days of the recent legislative session also prompted some heated comments from commission members and lawmakers who spoke before the panel. House Bill 506 altered the criteria the commission must consider for the congressional redistricting process.
Calling it “forced gerrymandering” from the Republican-dominated Legislature, Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Missoula Democrat, argued the state Constitution gives the commission the sole power to decide how to draw districts, and deliberately leaves lawmakers out of the process.
Responding to Democratic Commissioner Joe Lamson, Essmann noted no court has made that determination.
“If you look strictly at the language that is in the Montana Constitution, it provides no criteria with respect to the drawing of congressional districts,” Essmann said.
The commission is working against the backdrop of two main deadlines. Congressional districts must be finalized in time for the 2022 elections, while new legislative districts won’t be effective until the 2024 elections.