Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission said it wanted a lot of public feedback on the maps that will determine legislative boundaries for a decade.

And it got a lot of feedback, especially as it considered how Native Americans’ voices would be heard in Helena, and how to balance the urban and rural divide in the Treasure State.

Friday marked the first chance for the public to weigh in on four potential legislative maps, and the public got the opportunity to give feedback on the University of Montana campus.

The public was encouraged at the top of the meeting to give their thoughts on how the commission should divide the state into legislative districts that will be implemented during the 2024 election cycle. The commission completed their work on the congressional district map last fall.

There was push back from commenters on the Republican map proposals, HDP1 and HDP4 drawn by Commissioners Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek respectively, especially as it concerns compliance with the Voting Rights Act with one commenter calling the two proposals “absolutely racist.”

Compliance with the Voting Rights Act is federally required and also outlined in the Montana Code Annotated. If the final map misses the mark it could end up in federal court.

“If you’re truly interested in hearing equitable voices from across Montana, to include people that look like me, map one and four have to go,” said one commenter, who self-identified as First Nations with German roots. “That is just a blatant attempt to further the policies of this nation against my people for the past 250 years.”

Board Chair of Western Native Voice Pat Smith endorsed the maps proposed by Democrat Commissioners Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller, HDP2 and HDP3 respectively, saying they met the necessary minority majority districts for the Native population in the state and opposed the two proposed Republican maps.

He said Stusek’s proposal eliminates the Blackfeet Flathead majority-minority Senate District and also eliminates a majority minority House District on the Flathead Reservation. He said Essmann’s proposal eliminates the majority-minority Senate District along the Missouri River, which includes the Fort Belknap, Fort Peck and Rocky Boy reservations.

“These maps should be rejected because they do not comply with the voting rights protections in the Montana Constitution or the Federal Voting Rights Act and thus also do not comply with this commission’s mandatory redistricting criteria,” he said.

Western Native Voice is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over three bills that passed during the 2021 legislative session that they say violate state constitutional protections for voting, and unfairly discriminate against Native Americans living on reservations.

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 and comply with the VRA. Districts also 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.

Commenters in support of the Republican map proposals were generally in support of districts drawn with the compactness criteria for drawing the map as a priority.

State Rep. Mike Hopkins, R- Missoula, criticized the Democratic proposals HDP2 and HDP3 proposed by Commissioners Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller respectively, for the way they were drawn to include city sections and rural areas in the same district. He said that this impacts how elected officials end up legislating in Helena.

“I think that it’s important that when people go to the legislature, they’re actually in a position to be able to represent the interests of their constituents, and those are split city to county,” Hopkins said. “I think you know when we’re talking about the urban rural divide, I think it builds a lot of animosity.”

Hopkins represents HD-92, which is currently drawn to include parts of the city of Missoula and Missoula County. Miller followed up after Hopkins’ comments to ask where he lives, to which he said he didn’t live in the district but lived in the city of Missoula.

Stusek told the Daily Montanan that people in cities like Missoula or Bozeman are going to have different interests than the neighboring rural communities, and that sometimes people out in these communities feel neglected.

Stusek said that he encourages participation from the public, but that what is especially helpful is geographic specific concerns with the maps so the commission could use that information to potentially make changes.

There were also compactness concerns as it relates to geographical area, especially as it relates to travel, which can be arduous during winter months.

“You have to think about the people that are left behind in those counties, are they being fully represented?” said Rep. Denley Loge, R- St.Regis. “You can’t take a small county like Mineral and split it up, it just should not happen.”

Others commented that they wanted there to be both rural and urban parts to a district, saying it made for more competitive districts and made candidates need to be more well-rounded.

State Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, said SD-46, the district she represents, spans from downtown Missoula through the northeastern part of Missoula County.

“It’s really good for me to go up to Potomac, and learn about the ranch and cow-calf operation,” she said. “It’s really good for me to learn about the timber industry that happens and the housing crisis that’s affecting our lumber mills.

“Having a district that is similar, that is homogenous, isn’t, I think, as healthy for our legislative body. I think it’s good for us to learn more about the rural and urban aspects of Montana.”

Executive Director for Montana Women Vote SJ Howell said that Competitiveness matters to folks who have been or have felt left out of the process.

“More competitive districts mean candidates of every party have to earn the votes of Montanans in their districts,” she said. “This makes for better candidates who understand more what’s going on with everyone in their district and better representation in those districts.”

Others mentioned how when people feel that a map is drawn in a way that they would not stand a chance to win, they stop participating all together.

Former Montana Congressman Pat Williams who represented the Treasure State in Washington, D.C. from 1979 to 1997, and also served on the state’s first redistricting commission made a plea to the commission to “give minorities a chance.”

“Our prime minority, no question are Native Americans. Their enormous part of Montana’s heritage, history, progress, color,” he said.

He said as he looked at their draft, there were some flaws, especially as it related to Native Representation in the State Senate, which he said had always been “vigorous.” He told them to change it.

Stusek told Williams that 15 years ago he had sat in Williams’ classroom at UM and debated campus parking.

“The isssues have changed but it’s good to see you again,” Stusek said.

“But here’s the parking problem changed?” Williams said.

Stusek said that the public hearing that was scheduled to be held in Pablo Thursday will likely be rescheduled next week but an official announcement is forthcoming.

All four maps along with public hearing schedule is available on the commission’s website.