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Montana redistricting commission advances proposed congressional maps

HELENA (KPAX) — A Montana commission has advanced nine proposals for what the state’s two future congressional districts could look like – but Republicans and Democrats remain far apart in their ideas.

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission met at the State Capitol Tuesday to identify which proposed district lines they wanted to get more public comment on over the next two weeks.

The commission includes two members chosen by Republican leaders in the Montana Legislature, two chosen by Democratic legislative leaders and a chair selected by the Montana Supreme Court.

The members are tasked with dividing the state into two districts as close as possible to equal population –- each of which will elect one representative to the U.S. House starting in 2022.

The Republican commissioners provided four proposed maps, and the Democrats offered five of their own.

The Republican plans are all variations on the same theme: dividing the state into an eastern and western district with a relatively simple north-south line.

They said that would create relatively compact districts as required by law and provide representation for the distinct social and economic interests in Western and Eastern Montana.

To create two equal districts, a straight north-south line would essentially run from Liberty County in the north to West Yellowstone in the south. It would place Missoula, Kalispell, Helena and Butte in the western district and Billings in the eastern district. Cascade and Gallatin Counties would be split, but the largest populations around Great Falls and Bozeman would be in the east.

Republicans have also proposed variations on that line, including one following closer to the Continental Divide.

According to the website Dave’s Redistricting App, which many members of the public used to submit possible district maps, most of those splits would create two districts that would lean toward Republicans.

The Democratic proposals were more varied, but they generally combined Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, and Butte into a single “southwestern” district – often with Kalispell added to the eastern district to balance the populations. The goal is to create one district that could be competitive – giving Democratic and Republican candidates a chance to win.

The Democrats also proposed several more unusual maps, including one that would split Flathead County to allow an east-west split with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Blackfeet reservations in the western district and one creating more northern and southern districts, splitting Billings between the two.

Dave’s Redistricting App says those proposals would generally have relatively close numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the western or southwestern district – in some cases actually having more Democrats.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the Republicans on the commission wouldn’t agree to move any of the Democratic maps forward for further consideration.

“I think five of the maps that were submitted by my cohorts across the aisle fail the constitutional test of compactness and would be subject to challenge in court, and therefore I cannot in good faith vote yes for the motion,” said commissioner Jeff Essmann, of Billings.

After that, the Democrats declined to support the Republicans’ maps.

“The basic problem with all of our colleagues’ maps is none of them are competitive,” said commissioner Joe Lamson, of Helena. “They do not meet the state goal of not unduly favoring one party over another, and trying to create competitive maps.”

Commission chair Maylinn Smith broke the ties and moved all nine of the plans forward. In the next few days, the proposals will appear on the commission website and the public will be able to give specific comments on each.

The commission is set to hold a public hearing on these maps on October 19. They could select a tentative final congressional map on Oct. 21.