Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission is asking for citizens to submit ideas and maps with proposed new legislative district boundaries by July 15, so commissioners can incorporate suggested boundaries from the public into the maps commissioners will put out for hearings in August and September.
The boundaries the commission finally adopts will define Montana’s House of Representatives and Senate districts for the next 10 years, beginning with the 2024 elections.
This is an opportunity to revitalize our democracy by drawing districts that are responsive to constituent representation.
The commission has two discretionary goals that have the potential to be responsive to constituent representation: communities of interest and competitive districts.
A community of interest (COI) is a geographic area in which people share common concerns better addressed if the area was not divided between districts. A COI should not be defined by any relationship between a community and a political party, incumbent or candidate. A COI can be based on: urban, suburban, or rural interests, including school districts; tribal interests; neighborhoods; geographic location; demographics; communication and transportation networks; social, cultural, historic, and economic interests; or occupations and lifestyles.
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Keeping a community of interest intact within one district allows the community the opportunity to have a representative responsive to their concerns.
Competitive districts have an even balance of voters from the two major political parties such that candidates from either party can win in general elections. Districts that are not competitive are those that have an overwhelming majority of voters from one political party and regularly elect candidates only from that one party.
When a district is not competitive, the primary election usually determines the general election results. Primary elections have lower voter turnout than general elections and the voters who vote in the primary are the most ardent party loyalists. Primary candidates “play to their base” and largely ignore other voters and constituents, because they need only a majority of the ardent partisan loyalists to be elected. More partisan extremists get elected, then go to the Legislature to work toward the more extreme agenda their base demands. These politically safe districts are safe for political parties but they are unsafe for minority constituents and for the willingness to compromise that is the democratic process.
When a district is “competitive,” primary voters in both political parties know their candidate will need to appeal to a variety of constituents and politically diverse voters in the general election. Competitive district primaries elect more moderate candidates from both parties who remain responsive to a broad range of constituents and are willing to compromise on legislation. Competitive districts have the potential to mitigate the partisan extremism that has led to the inability of lawmakers to work together and pass legislation favored by the majority of citizens.
Redistricting offers opportunity for public to submit maps
There are several free map-drawing software programs available on the internet that are user-friendly. The software programs display the characteristics of each district as it is drawn, including total population and partisan lean. Links to these programs as well as the criteria maps must meet, including how to measure competitiveness, can be found on the commission’s website: https://mtredistricting.gov/
The Montana League of Women Voters website also has information and links to these software programs: https://my.lwv.org/montana
Now is the time for the pubic to weigh in with maps and ideas that reflect our concerns and priorities. Communities of interest and competitive districts offer the opportunity to create districts in which voters can elect representatives that more closely reflect constituent concerns not just at election time but throughout the time they serve.
Nancy Leifer is president of the League of Women Voters of Montana. Sue Hoell and Becky Piske, co-presidents, League of Women Voters of the Helena Area.