Proposed maps to divide Montana into legislative districts sparked a heated back and forth between commissioners across the aisle, with Democrats accusing Republicans of proposing an extreme, partisan and gerrymandered legislative district map.
Commissioners on the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission for both parties presented their submissions for consideration on how to divide the legislative map for elections starting in 2024.
Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller criticized the maps put forth by Republicans saying they would unfairly favor Republican candidates in a way that would garner them at least 14 additional seats in the House and decrease Native representation in the Legislature.
Republicans on the commission pushed back on the idea that their maps were drawn in a way to benefit their party, with Commissioner Dan Stusek bringing up examples of where he chose not to give his party an advantage, like not splitting up Whitefish.
But Miller said Republican efforts were still not on the level.
“The fact that you had a little bit of restraint in one or two places, but still drew yourself 14 extra seats is no solace to the people of Montana who would like a legislature that reflects all Montanans,” Miller said.
Miller argued the Republican proposals pushed the Republican advantage in districts beyond their already 57% advantage in the electorate to Democrats’ 43%, based on 10 races selected by the commission as a ‘competitiveness’ metric.
The Districting and Apportionment Commission is made up of four commissioners, two selected by legislative Democrats and two by legislative Republicans. The committee chair is appointed by the Montana Supreme Court.
Republican Commissioner Jeff Essmann also objected to Miller’s claim, saying that a motive had been ascribed to him. Essman defended how he chose to draw lines around communities like Glasgow, just off the Fort Peck Reservation.
“The City of Glasgow, that has been divided for 20 years, I tried to keep it intact,” he said. “ I have served with representatives of the Voting Rights Act districts in all seven sessions I served in, they did an excellent job representing their community.”
He said it was never his intent to disenfranchise anyone.
Miller contended that the Republican’s intent wasn’t at issue, but the outcome that their proposed maps would cause.
Montana Democrats said the Republican commissioners’ two proposed maps “drastically reduce reservation communities’ representation and blatantly break the standards set by the Voting Rights Act and subsequent Supreme Court decisions,” in a release Tuesday.
“Both Republican commissioners’ map proposals steal representation from Indian Country, and it is outrageous and completely unacceptable. Not only is it an egregious attempt at a partisan gerrymander–it is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Sen. Susan Weber, D-Browning, in the release. “Montana’s Native communities have a right to equal participation in the political process, and the Republicans’ maps run roughshod over that right.”
Montana Republicans issued a release saying that Democrats submitted gerrymandered maps and also received the Republican maps prior to the meeting.
“Today, Democrat members of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission tried to claim moral high ground, but in fact their hands were dirty,” said Montana Republican Party Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt in a statement. “It is incredibly disappointing Democrat members of the Commission used their positions to unfairly obtain access to Republican maps prior to the public meeting. They’ve also once again carved up our state in a desperate attempt for political gain.”
Democrats said they were able to conduct quick analysis of the maps by preparing excel sheets beforehand and were able to import the data from the Dave’s Redistricting website during the meeting.
The commission adopted criteria for legislative districts last summer, requiring districts be “as equal in population as is practicable” within a 1% deviation with certain exceptions, there must be compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, districts must be functionally compact in terms of distance and in one piece.
The commission also agreed to goals for the districting process, which serve as priorities but not requirements, that includes language that no map favors one political party and that district competitiveness be considered.
Essmann said that the 57% to 43% edge that Republicans have is not where they have to end up in the House map as that requirement is not listed in either the Montana Constitution nor the U.S. Constitution.
“The word fair does not appear in the Montana constitution with respect to drawing these maps,” he said.
The commission voted 3-2 in favor of putting the proposed maps up for public comment, with the Democrats in opposition.
Chairwoman Maylinn Smith, the deciding vote to put the maps up for public comment, said she did not expect the maps presented Tuesday would be the final map going forward. The final map will be submitted to the 2023 legislature.
“I recognize that there are issues with some of the maps and I am confident that those have been clearly raised and we will be getting lots of public comment on those issues,” Smith said.
The commission is holding nine public hearings on the proposed maps, both in person and on Zoom, in late August and early September.
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