Guest Column

Republican Maps for Indian Country: Broken Promises 

Eliminating majority-minority legislative districts in Indian Country and diluting Native votes has other major consequences for the entire state

By Montana American Indian Caucus Members

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission is responsible for redrawing state legislative districts to reflect every community in Montana. Voters need to be able to elect legislators who represent different viewpoints and can come together to solve the problems our state faces. This responsibility requires the Commission to ensure voices are heard in every part of our state, and no one is left behind. That is why it was so unfortunate that when the Commission proposed maps earlier this month, the Republican commissioners put forward two proposals that would both eliminate majority-minority districts and quash the possibility for Native Montanans to elect the candidates of their choice.

Republican Commissioner Dan Stusek’s proposal would separate the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations. It totally eliminates a majority-minority House district and majority-minority Senate district shared by both reservations. Commissioner Jeff Essmann’s map would eliminate the Fort Belknap, Rocky Boy and Fort Peck Reservation shared Senate district while at the same time making it much more difficult to elect Native candidates of choice in any northeastern Montana district. Both Republican proposals would make it nearly impossible for Native candidates of choice to win House and Senate seats in the districts encompassing the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.

This is a disservice to Montana. Native citizens are a part of this state’s fabric. We contribute millions of dollars to the economy, enrich our culture, and take care of our neighbors. Designing legislative districts that deny us the same right to equal participation in the political process as other Montanans is wrong, and it’s illegal. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act guarantees minorities the right to districts where they are the majority and can elect the candidates of their choice. Protecting minority voting rights is also a requirement under the Montana Constitution. Article II, Section 4 prohibits the state infringing on a citizen’s political rights to representation “on account of race, color, sex, culture, social origin or condition, or political or religious ideas.”

Eliminating majority-minority legislative districts in Indian Country and diluting Native votes has other major consequences for the entire state. It makes maps, in which Republicans are favored to win over 70% of legislative seats with only 57% of the vote, even more biased. Are the Republican commissioners so desperate to create undue advantages for their party that they now stoop low enough to steal seats from Indian Country? This is just bottom of the barrel politics, and it’s a broken promise from Republican vommissioners.

At the June 2021 Commission meeting, Essmann emphatically claimed, “As far as history goes, we are not proposing repealing the Voting Rights Act today. We propose to keep the Federal Indian Reservations intact.” We cannot express how deeply we wish that Essmann kept his promise from that day. However, since he did not, we will continue to fight for our seat at the table at Commission hearings, and, if illegal maps are adopted, in Court.

Montana American Indian Caucus members Sen. Shane A. Morigeau, Sen. Susan Webber, Sen. Mike Fox, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, Rep. Donavon Hawk, Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, Rep. Marvin Weatherwax and  Rep. Frank Smith. 

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