Thirty years ago, Montana lost one of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives we had held for 80 years. The mathematical formula that was used to determine the distribution of representatives after U.S. Census counts had worked against us. The result was that Montana lost half our representation in the U.S. House while other states with many members, actually gained representatives.
The loss made the single Montana district the most populous in the country, with more people scattered over a larger area than any other congressional district. What had to happen was a radical reduction in visits to rural communities by their “personal representative.”
I was attending a meeting of other western state legislators at about that time and was lamenting the brutal unfairness of the 1991 reapportionment on Montana to a legislator who turned out to be from California. “Well,” he said, “I feel sorry for you, but not too sorry,” and then pointedly pointed out to me that Montana was actually greatly over-represented in Congress. This was so, he said, because we had three people looking out for the national interests of our population of about 800,000 people, which he quickly calculated worked out to one member of Congress for 266,000 people, whereas California congressional districts were more than twice that size.
My flabbergasted response was that he was counting Montana’s two U.S. senators, and that our Constitution allows all states, including California, two senators. He said that in representing a state, didn’t a senator also represent the people of the state? I said, “Of course, they do.” “Well,” he said, “that’s the huge advantage you little “jack-pine and jack-rabbit states” have over the states that actually contain the people.” I resented his characterization, but it carried the stark message that we do not always see ourselves as others see us.
I was reminded of that conversation by the wonderful news that by the same formula that penalized us in 1991, we have our lost seat back again. The big loser, this time, is New York, which by the 2020 Census count came up short by fewer than 100 people, and so will go from 27 to 26 seats.
I doubt few Montanans feel too sorry for New York, but by the same calculation the California legislator used with me, Montana will soon have four people in Congress looking out for about a million of us, compared to New York where one congressperson represents about 700,000 people.
Significantly more representation for Montana in Congress is unquestionably good news for Montana. Former Democratic Congressman Pat Williams recently commented that he and his colleague, the late Republican Congressman Ron Marlenee, accomplished far more together for Montana than either ever could have alone.
A citizen apportionment commission is now in the process of deciding where to draw the line that will divide Montana into two congressional districts. In the 2022 general election, Montanans will choose our two representatives. If it works out that we elect a Democrat and a Republican, as was Montana’s tradition for the eight decades in which we had two districts, we must wonder whether in today’s political climate they will be able to function as well together for Montana as Williams and Marlenee did 30 years ago.
Bob Brown is the former Republican Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.
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