Montana’s nonpartisan five-person districting committee is now on the clock.
The U.S. Census Bureau last week released its official population count that will be used to divide the state into two U.S. House districts for the first time in 30 years. The committee, which meets next week, is legally required to get the job done within 90 days.
The government agency’s findings largely tracked with estimates released earlier this year when it found Montana had added enough residents to earn another representative in Congress. Over the last decade, our population swelled by about 100,000 residents to 1,084,225.
The big difference between the previous county-level predictions and the actual results is Flathead and Missoula counties added slightly fewer people than earlier estimates and Yellowstone and Gallatin added a few more.
In fact, Gallatin County grew by an astonishing 33%, adding 29,447 people over the last 10 years, or about the entire population of Lake County. Among the state’s most populous counties, Flathead had the second highest growth rate at 14% and is now home to 104,357 people.
Gallatin (118,960) now trails only Yellowstone County (164,731) in population, followed by Missoula County and us. Meanwhile, 19 of Montana’s 56 counties actually lost residents, reflecting a nationwide trend where more rural areas are slowly emptying out. Rosebud County, located in the southwest portion of the state, lost the largest number of residents at 904, and Liberty County, located along the Hi-Line, lost the greatest percentage at 16.
How these official numbers now factor into redistricting will be interesting to watch. Despite not knowing what the new districts will look like, several Democratic and Republican candidates have already announced they are running for one of the seats even if they don’t end up living within their borders, which is not required under Montana law.
The conventional wisdom remains the same. The new map will be similar to the old Western and Eastern districts that drew a line close to the Continental Divide, except now that border will need to be moved west to account for substantial growth in just about every urban center on this side of the state. The question then would be which counties join the Eastern District.
The Montana Districting and Apportionment Committee is made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and a chairperson appointed by the state Supreme Court. Chair Maylinn Smith has previously said she wants to build consensus and avoid her role as tiebreaker. That may be a tall order.
The committee must follow mandatory criteria for drawing districts. Those include making them “as equal in population as is practicable,” “consist of a compact territory,” “be in one piece,” and “attempt to minimize dividing cities, towns, counties and federal reservations.” Another: “No plan may be drawn to unduly favor a political party.”
That last criteria is subjective at best. Montana has been trending red during recent statewide elections. But anything resembling the former map, even with conservative Flathead County, would likely result in a highly competitive Western District. When this all shakes out, one party is bound to be unhappy.
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