The U.S. Census has spoken, four months later than it was supposed to, and determined that Montana will gain a second U.S. House seat in 2022 after we added about 100,000 people over the last decade. The anticipation leading up to the April announcement was palpable, especially since it was supposed to be delivered at the end of last year.
We are finally given a reason to celebrate as we transition from the least represented state in the U.S. House of Representatives to one of the most represented. That can mean a lot when our politicians go about the business of divvying up federal dollars from the government’s coffers.
But now we wait again. This time for the Census to release “official” counts of our counties and municipalities in the fall before a nonpartisan five-person districting committee decides how the state will be cut in two, based mainly on population and geography. The process will be heavily scrutinized with members of both parties already bemoaning the potential for gerrymandering.
Before the rhetoric ratchets up, let’s look at what the agency released last week: unofficial population totals of every American county. These estimates can at least give us an idea of how and where the state has grown over the last 10 years. And like most of these stories go, in our state everything starts with Gallatin County and the booming city of Bozeman.
From 2010 to 2020, according to Census estimates, that county grew by an astounding 27,000 people, from 89,662 to 116,806. To those who have lived there, which I did during part of the 2000s, this is unsurprising as the area is nearly unrecognizable from what it was then. The current land rush underway across the state began in Bozeman more than 10 years ago.
The second fastest growing county is, you guessed it, us. Over those same 10 years, according to the government’s best guess, Flathead County added about 15,000 people, ballooning in population from 90,863 to 105,851. While well behind Gallatin’s breakneck pace, that’s a lot of people.
To put it in perspective, over the course of that decade we added more residents than the larger population centers of Missoula and Yellowstone counties, which each saw a fair amount of growth. If close to the official count, these speculative numbers will have a profound impact on the districting committee when it convenes and starts looking at where to divide the state’s populace.
I still believe the committee members will decide to create Western and Eastern districts similar to what existed when the state had two congressional seats before losing one in 1990. But that line, which largely followed the Continental Divide, is going to need to move.
While a few more rural counties here and there have grown by 1,000 or more people, most of Montana’s decade-long growth is isolated to a few urban areas and almost all of them are located in the former Western District. That includes Gallatin, Flathead, Missoula, Lewis and Clark and Ravalli counties. Combined, those five grew in population by 66,000. The only Eastern District area to see substantial growth was Yellowstone County, which added an estimated 14,000 people.
The question now is what urban area the districting committee will pull from the west to even out the populations. Or will it instead start from scratch with a blank map? Either way, when official county tallies are released, the committee will have to account for a region that is growing far faster than its eastern counterpart.
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