Chair Breaks with Democrats to Pass a Legislative Map, Completing Redistricting Process

Gaveling in every 10 years following the decennial census count, the commission works to divide the state into proportionally-sized congressional and legislative districts

By Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan
The Montana State Capitol in Helena. Beacon file photo

Redistricting Commission Chair Maylinn Smith broke with Democrats to pass Montana’s legislative map on Saturday, marking the end of over three years of work from the commission.

Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission voted 3-2, with Republicans opposed, on a map to divide the state into 100 house districts, with 50 senate district pairings after accepting recommendations from the legislature on their tentative map proposed in December.

“We’re trying to create a map that’s best for Montana,” Smith said. “There’s gonna be differences on that, on what’s best for Montana, but that is ultimately my goal.

“My role, I think, here, is to look not at the individual areas, but the state as a whole. So that’s how I have tried to move you guys — reluctantly sometimes — towards consensus.”

Gaveling in every 10 years following the decennial census count, the commission works to divide the state into proportionally-sized congressional and legislative districts. The commission voted on the line dividing the state in two congressional districts in 2021 following a population boom reflected in the census. The legislative map will impact elections starting in 2024.

Smith recognized in her final remarks that eastern Montana is losing population to urban centers in the western region of the state, which she said adds tension in trying to draw a fair map.

“That is the reality of how Montana is growing,” she said.

The commission will dissolve when the final legislative map is submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office, likely within 30 days. Staff said the map will be publicly available on the commission’s website likely on Wednesday.

In its last gathering after receiving recommendations from the legislature,, the commission voted on several amendments to the map based on the recommendations, which included both bipartisan and Republican requests. The tentative map put forward, TCP-3, was introduced by Democrats in the fall.

Commissioners from both parties introduced amendments rehashing arguments from the fall.

Chair Smith voted against the Republican amendment to separate Whitefish and Columbia Falls, an area on the map that received lots of public comment.

The desire to separate the two northwest Montana towns was mentioned in the Republican caucus requests, which Commissioner Kendra Miller, a Democrat, referred to as a “Republican wish list.”

Republicans initially flipped a seat in Missoula County red in an amendment made in the morning, with Chair Smith breaking the tie in their favor. However, Democrats in the afternoon said they would not vote on the final map with the Missoula amendment.

Miller then made an amendment to move the line back to where it was in their tentative plan, which Smith also voted with Democrats on, before moving to vote on the final map.

Smith wanted to keep the process moving. She said earlier that she would like to have a finalized map out of that meeting.

When Democrats drew that line in the sand, Republicans opted not to vote for the map with their amendment included either.

Republicans told the press after the meeting the logic to not vote in favor of that map was that the presumption would have been that a map with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed would have been Republican approved, which they said it was still not.

“This seemed to be sort of a Commissioner Miller map,” said Commissioner Dan Stusek, a Republican.

“That’s where it started and that’s where it ended,” Republican Commissioner Jeff Essmann added.

Republicans said they made concessions last year in good faith with Democrats in areas like Whitefish and Columbia Falls. This negotiation was done outside the public eye during one-on-one meetings to reach consensus. But Republicans said when they saw the Democrats’ proposal, it was different from what they’d agreed to.

In a letter to Chair Smith dated on Thursday, Essmann said that Republicans were “shocked by the bait and switch.”

But Miller said the map had consensus and met the criteria and goals of the commission. With amendments included, the map contains nine competitive house districts and three competitive senate districts, meeting the criteria for competitiveness the commission previously voted on. One of the commission’s goals was for the map to not unduly favor either party.

During a hearing for public comment held Friday, Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, told the commission that the Select Committee on Redistricting that he served on took issue with metrics like competitiveness, saying that’s not rooted in the Constitution like requirements for compactness.

Miller said during the meeting Saturday that just because a district is square, or compact, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily fair. She sent links to the final House and Senate maps with amendments to the Daily Montanan.

Stusek said he didn’t know of any effort for potential litigation on the map. Mercer brought up the hypothetical of litigation during one of the redistricting hearings in the legislature.

“But today didn’t lean towards stopping anything that people might have had in mind,” Stusek said.

Essmann asked Mercer about seeing if the legislature could adjust the requirements for deviation standards be raised to 2% or 3% to give the commission more discretion in moving lines to meet other criteria like political subdivisions.

Right now, the commission is required to stay within a 1% population deviation, which can make accounting for other criteria more difficult.

The bipartisan legislative recommendations passed during the meeting Saturday, making adjustments to the map that did not have significant partisan implications. This included adjustments to make an additional single county house district and senate district in Lewis and Clark County and moving a line near Ronan to account for a request from Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan.

Every commission member besides Commissioner Denise Juneau, who joined last fall following Commissioner Joe Lamson’s departure, said they would not be participating in the redistricting process next census.

“I was single when I started, and I would be single again if I did it again,” said Stusek, who got married last fall, following the meeting.

Chair Smith spoke to the benefit of having an independent redistricting commission, something the legislature has reportedly considered changing.

“The independent commission, for me, is a way that those minority voices can still be heard and that is one of the things that I think is incredibly important about an independent commission,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.