HELENA – Even lawmakers’ first steps to begin the once-a-decade process of carving new legislative districts wear the marks of the bitter partisanship that often characterized the process in the past.
Republicans on Thursday released names of their candidates for the commission charged with redrawing legislative districts to reflect new census numbers. And — surprise — all four turned out to be Republicans. Democrats, if history is any indication, almost certainly will pick party stalwarts for their appointments, as well.
This time GOP leaders have thrown a new twist into the process, with a dedicated e-mail for receiving public comment on their candidates. Senate Majority Leader Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said the goal is to be more “open and transparent,” but Democrats think otherwise and have no plans to do the same.
“It could get to be a partisan sort of wrangling and that’s not what the commission is supposed to do,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, careful to note that she finds all the Republican nominees well-qualified.
State law says Republican and Democratic leadership in the Legislature each may select two commissioners. Those four then are to agree on a fifth member, the chairman. If the appointees deadlock on choosing the tie-breaking chairman, then a decision rests with the Montana Supreme Court.
“I was hopeful the last go round that the four would be able to agree on a chairman,” said retired Chief Justice Karla Gray, who served on the court when it nominated the swing vote in 1999. “I don’t think it’s a responsibility that the court looks forward to, but perhaps that’s just my opinion.”
Stalemates have forced the court to appoint the chairman for bickering lawmakers in three of the four most recent redistricting efforts. And those appointments have in turn led to more partisan bickering, spawning bitter charges of gerrymandering that reverberate for years.
“The intent was, by establishing the commission, to wash some of the partisanship out of the process and have an end product that is fair. The problem here in Montana is it’s a five-member commission,” said Craig Wilson, political science professor at Montana State University-Billings.
In 2000, Democrats had the three controlling votes on the Districting and Apportionment Commission. The resulting district maps provoked a number of lawsuits, including a state Supreme Court case, where justices affirmed the commission’s authority. Republicans have been sour ever since, charging Democrats with crafting unfair political borders that stole GOP control of the Legislature.
Wilson has studied what happened the last time the maps were redrawn and, by his tally, it’s textbook gerrymandering, which just means rigging district populations so that you win — but not by too much.
For example, Wilson’s numbers show there were 26 House districts drawn by the 2000 commission that had four percent or fewer people than the ideal district size. Of those, 22 were Democratic districts in the 2004 election. On the other side, the commission drew 26 districts where the population exceeded the ideal size by 4 percent or more, and 17 of those districts were Republican. The same kind of numbers characterize the Senate districts that took effect in 2004.
“They know that in a given district we don’t want to waste too many Democrats when we can win this all the time with just 50 percent,” said Jim Lopach, chairman of the University of Montana’s political science department.
Democrats, of course, counter that Republicans pulled the same thing back in 1990, when they controlled the redistricting process, and that their moves simply brought the playing field back into balance.
But whatever side you sit on, fiddling with political borders to seek advantage may be an inevitable temptation. While the state constitution requires districts that are “as nearly equal in population as is practicable” and that have “compact and contiguous territory,” there’s plenty of room for play.
“The fact is that with highly sophisticated programs we could literally come up with hundreds of different configurations of districts and each of them would meet the constitutional requirements,” Lopach said.
That reality was appreciated at the state’s last Constitutional Convention, where delegates struggled over how to make redistricting a fair process. Some argued a commission would insulate the process from partisanship. Others said elected legislators should handle inherently partisan questions, such as district boundaries — despite the body’s inability to get the job done smoothly in the past.
“Where could you get a more representative body to represent you than the Legislature?” convention delegate Richard Nutting, R-Silesia, asked during a debate at the 1972 convention.
And from the other side: “Each legislator tends to create his own district first. I think this is just a natural human trait. It’s not meant as criticism. There is great difficulty in being objective here, because one man’s gerrymander can be other one’s logical district,” said Carman Skari, who was a delegate and Chester Democrat.
Two such plans for redistricting — one giving final authority to the commission and the other to the Legislature — did come out of the committee charged with crafting a system. But in the end, the current method was supported on a 55-36 vote.
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