Opinion

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Like I Was Saying

Drawing District Lines

Latest Census estimate shows Montana gaining enough residents to land an additional U.S. House of Representatives member

Montana’s politicians keep emphasizing the impact that the 2020 U.S. Census will have on the state. Federal funding is tied to the country’s official population count, which takes place every decade. But this time around there is even more on the line: a congressional seat.

Most models, including the latest Census estimate, show our state gaining enough residents to land an additional U.S. House of Representatives member. Of course, nothing is official until after the tally, which begins here in a few months.

If, however, the results reflect the projections, Montana’s five-member Districting and Apportionment Commission will cut the state in half. It will determine the districts that each of the state’s two members of Congress will represent for at least the next 10 years, and likely longer.

That’s when it gets interesting. How will the bipartisan commission, chosen by legislative leaders of both parties and the Montana Supreme Court, decide to divide the state?

The assumption is the map will look a lot like it did when the state had two representatives before losing one 30 years ago. Then the line essentially followed the Rocky Mountain Front south to Livingston. At the time, counties in the Western District included every major metropolitan region in the state except Billings and Great Falls.

For years before the second seat was eliminated, a Democrat represented the Western District and a Republican represented the Eastern District. When Montana was reduced to one at-large seat in 1992, Democrat Pat Williams narrowly defeated his fellow Republican incumbent Ron Marlenee. Four years later, Williams retired and a Republican has held the seat ever since.

Demographics have dramatically changed since. Most of the fastest-growing counties are in the former Western District. For example, Flathead County had about 60,000 residents and Gallatin (home to Bozeman) had just 50,000 people in 1990. Both are home to over 100,000 today.

And therein lies the rub. The Census recently estimated that Montana’s population was 1.06 million in 2019. So, let’s assume each congressional district needs to include about 530,000 people. Based on that historical line, the Western District has about 630,000 residents. Thus, it’s going to need to move about 100,000 constituents to the Eastern District. The question is from where.

Here are a few options, using counties that straddle the old district line:

The new Eastern District gets Gallatin and Park counties. With a combined population of about 130,000, this map would divide the state’s two college towns. In the 2018 House race, the combined counties voted for Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams over Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte by about 8,000 votes.

The new Eastern District gets Park, Broadwater, Lewis and Clark and Glacier counties. With a combined population of about 100,000, this map would give the district some more rural counties and the state capital of Helena. In the 2018 House race, the combined counties voted for Williams over Gianforte by about 3,500 votes.

The new Eastern District gets Flathead and Glacier counties. With a combined population of about 115,000, this map would make a ruby red Eastern District and likely see the Western District trend blue. In the 2018 House race, the combined counties voted for Gianforte over Williams by about 8,000 votes.

It’s a lot to mull over. First things first: fill out your Census form.