Mapping of Montana Political Districts Off to Partisan Start

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The commission tasked with redrawing Montana’s political districts is deadlocked over who should be its fifth tie-breaking chairman, despite early promises to set a bipartisan tone.

Since the two Democrats and two Republicans were unable to compromise Thursday, the decision will be made by the Montana Supreme Court.

The last time choosing a chair fell to the court in 2000, the justices voted to bar the public from its deliberations, but Chief Justice Mike McGrath said he expects it will be an open process this time.

“I would anticipate that our selection would be made at a public meeting and our administrative duties are all now done in a public process,” McGrath said.

Every 10 years legislative districts are redrawn in Montana to reflect population changes discovered by the nation’s census takers — setting in motion a fiercely political process that in the past has led to numerous lawsuits and lingering partisan rancor.

This time around the Republican commissioners offered five candidates for the chair, and Democrats offered one. But each candidate was thrown out of the running on a 2-2 vote, excepting one who withdrew on his own. Democrats also rejected a former head of Legislative Services who suggested his own name, Robert Person.

“I think they looked at the odds and said. ‘We feel pretty comfortable letting this go to the court,'” said Jon Bennion, one of the Republican commissioners along with former Commissioner of Political Practices Linda Vaughey.

The Supreme Court has chosen the chairman in three out of the last four redistricting efforts. In each case, Bennion said, they have chosen a Democrat.

As they look for the fifth commissioner, the justices are free to consider new candidates or existing nominees.

The Republicans’ short list for chairman included three well-known political science professors: Jeffrey Greene, James Lopach and Craig Wilson. But Democrats said the committee’s chairman should not be chosen on the basis of knowledge about redistricting.

“We believe we need to have a person who has those skills to bring people together and we believe we have a stronger candidate,” said Democratic Commissioner Joe Lamson, also the deputy director of the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Their lone candidate, Holly Kaleczyc, would be able to unite the committee, Lamson said, citing how she brought together a diverse coalition when raising money to build Helena’s domestic violence shelter, The Friendship Center.

Lamson and fellow Democratic Commissioner Pat Smith, a Missoula attorney, pushed Kaleczyc’s name forward for three separate votes during Thursday’s meeting, clearly annoying the panel’s Republicans who consider her to be a Democratic operative.

“Their inability to move off their only nominee, I hope, is not illustrative of the negotiations we’ll be involved in in the coming months,” Vaughey said.

The chairman who will now be appointed by the state Supreme Court will cast the deciding vote on a number of contentious topics before the panel, such as how large a deviation to allow in district populations and what demographic data to use.

“Last time they basically put together a plan in the basement of Democratic headquarters using political data and election results,” said Bennion, a Clancy attorney who wants the commission to aim for no more than a 1 percent deviation.

Republicans have long charged that the Democratic-controlled redistricting commission of 2000 gerrymandered big wins for their party in the next few elections. And they point to Lamson, also a commissioner 10 years ago, as the mastermind behind that effort to concentrate Republicans in fewer districts.

But Democrats have always insisted Republicans did the same thing when they controlled the process back in 1990 — leading to a plan that landed in court for allegedly under-representing Indian voters.

“Reducing deviation far below 5 percent really ties the committee’s hands to be a little bit flexible in holding small communities together and complying with the Voting Rights Act,” Lamson said.

Along with state mandates about district size and quality, any redistricting plan must also pass a set of federal voting rights tests.

The commission is required to submit a plan to the 2011 Legislature for review so that the new districts can take effect by the 2012 elections.

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