Guest Column

Montanans Deserve Fair and Competitive Districts

Montanans are deeply concerned about the toxic polarization of politics

By Sheila Rice and Carol Williams

As former members of the Districting and Apportionment Commission, we know what’s at stake drawing legislative districts and now a new congressional district. We commend Commission Chair Maylinn Smith for her commitment to an open, public and transparent process. 

We are proud of our work on the 2000 and 2010 Commissions. These Commissions drew landmark plans based on the input of thousands of everyday Montanans, creating legislative maps reflecting the rich diversity of our communities across the state. Montana Democrats have a proven history of our commitment to an open process and maps that represent all Montanans at the Legislature.

In 1972 voters approved the new Montana Constitution establishing our independent citizen redistricting commission, due to the Montana Legislature’s repeated failure to draw maps guaranteeing our most basic constitutional rights. The will of the people was clear. Now the Legislature’s role in redistricting is the same as every other Montanan. They can offer suggestions on how the maps should be drawn, but they have absolutely no power to pass unconstitutional laws dictating how the Commission draws the maps.

The criteria the Democratic commissioners offered in June built on the criteria used by the past five commissions, while also offering important new criteria such as consideration of competitive districts and plan fairness measures. Like previous Commissions, Democratic commissioners proposed “mandatory criteria” to ensure plans comply with the Montana and U.S. Constitutions and the Voting Rights Act. These “mandatory criteria” involve population equality, drawing compact and contiguous districts, and making sure our reservation communities, like all Montana communities, can participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.

Population equality establishes the minimum and maximum number of Montanans in each district. The national established legal standards for legislative districts requires a plus or minus 5% population deviation to accommodate other criteria like compliance with the Voting Rights Act and keeping more small towns, counties, and communities of interest whole.

Never has the Census been suspended and delayed because of a pandemic. It resulted in chaotic understaffing and rushed Census operations across Montana. No one has any idea how the pandemic may have impacted the count.  

Unreasonably strict deviation standards will tie the hands of the Commission and cut the public out of the process. Redistricting isn’t just a flat line mathematical equation. Public involvement is crucial, and flexibility in drawing districts ensures all Montana communities are fairly represented at the Legislature.

The proposed “discretionary criteria” will have the Commission consider the boundaries of political subdivisions like Indian reservations, counties, cities, towns, and school districts when drawing plans. It will also consider keeping communities of interest intact. Communities of interest can be based on rural, urban, and suburban interests, Indian reservations, and the sharing of economic, cultural, and social interests.

To make sure maps do not have the effect of unduly favoring or disfavoring any political party, Democrats are proposing a political fairness criterion like previous Commissions have adopted. Montanans deserve a politically neutral map, and fairness measures can be easily calculated with election data. For the first time in history, there will be free, publicly available redistricting websites that everyday Montanans and the media can use to evaluate the political characteristics of any proposed map.

Montanans are deeply concerned about the toxic polarization of politics. Elections need to not only be fair but competitive, so elected officials are responsive to their constituents. When the winner of the primary election is the de facto winner in November, too many candidates are encouraged to cater to the most extreme interests in their parties.  

When candidates pick their voters rather than voters picking the candidates, all Montanans lose. Not every district can be competitive, but on a statewide basis, the Commission should create a reasonable number of districts where candidates of either party can knock on doors, make their case, and win in the general election.  

The Commission is currently accepting testimony and will have public hearings in Helena and on Zoom July 8 and 9. 

Please let the Commission know you strongly support the creation of fair and competitive congressional and legislative districts at http://www.leg.mt.gov/districting/2020-commission/redistricting-input/.

Sheila Rice and Carol Williams are former Districting and Apportionment Commissioners from 2000 and 2010.

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