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Montana redistricters balk, delay congressional map selection amid discord

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission meets on Thursday, October 21 (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

(Daily Montanan) Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission hit another speed bump on the road to consensus this weekend, postponing the selection of a final congressional map for public review until next week after one proposal failed to gather enough votes.

The independent commission, tasked with drawing congressional and legislative district lines every 10 years, went into its meeting Saturday to hear public comment on four maps with the goal of advancing a finalist by the end of the afternoon.

But hours of testimony and debate by the commission’s four partisan members only yielded disagreement, though the panel did further winnow its options to two maps, which will go up for further public comment at a meeting 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, November 4, in Room 317 of the Capitol.

The hold up at this stage comes down to the fate of a handful of politically significant counties, namely Gallatin, Flathead, and Lewis and Clark. All four maps under primary consideration this weekend are variations of an east-west split, more or less following the precedent when the state last had two congressional districts 30 years ago.

But the placement of those and other key counties on either side of the line has potentially significant political ramifications, especially for Democrats, who have been pushing for at least one district to be winnable by either party — a difficult feat in a state trending heavily Republican.

Democratic commissioners Kendra Miller and Joe Lamson put forth a map for a vote Saturday that keeps liberal population centers in southwestern Montana in one western district but splits the populous and deeply conservative Flathead, putting Kalispell in an eastern district that stretches all the way to the Dakotas — an idea that dozens of public commenters and elected officials from the region packed the commission’s meeting room to oppose.

“I think the idea of taking Kalispell out of the west doesn’t make sense,” testified Flathead resident Terry Falk. “It doesn’t make sense to have one representative representing Whitefish and another representative representing Kalispell.”

Others said that splitting the Flathead was an attempt by Democrats to dilute conservative voting power.

Republican commissioners Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek were similarly rankled by the concept, voting against the map and forcing a tie-break by Supreme Court-appointed commission chair Maylinn Smith. Smith, a law professor and tribal attorney, voted against the proposal, reiterating her desire for a consensus approach and for more time to hear public comment on a pair of “compromise” maps introduced by each side late this week.

“Recognizing that every decision is not going to make everybody happy, I feel I need more information…so I’m going to vote ‘no’ to moving (the map) forward at this time,” Smith said.

The new Republican proposal, dubbed CP12, is a slight variation on a publicly submitted map from earlier in the process. Responding to public concerns about splitting Gallatin County, as had been done in previous proposals, it puts Gallatin in the west but leaves Park County in the east. Lewis and Clark County, historically in the western district, would go to the east, while Pondera County would be split to keep the Blackfeet Reservation in the west and even out Native representation.

The Democratic proposal, CP13, splits three counties: Bozeman and the rest of southern Gallatin County would go to the west, all of Lewis and Clark county except the city of Helena would go to the east, and Pondera County would be split to keep the Blackfeet nation in the west.

Several members of the public also testified against removing Helena and Lewis and Clark County from the west, pointing to an affinity with other Democratic-leaning union towns in the southwest.

The commission must advance a final congressional map by November 14 before it moves on to drawing legislative district boundaries. For years, Montana was relegated to a single at-large congressional district, but population growth demonstrated in the 2020 Census awarded the state a second district for the first time in decades.