The work of a five-person commission to redraw the lines of Montana’s legislative districts in the most fair, nonpartisan and constitutional way possible is beginning in earnest. Yet paradoxically, redistricting is traditionally one of the most bare-knuckled partisan processes in Montana politics.
Since the last Democrat-controlled Districting and Apportionment Commission redrew district lines in 2000, Republicans have complained that boundaries were drawn to maximize Democratic voters and dilute the influence of GOP supporters, thus putting more Democrats in the Legislature.
“They gerrymandered the system to get the most Democratic outcome they could, and we believe it cost us three-to-five House seats,” Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, said. “The Republicans really are burned after the last time.”
But Joe Lamson, a deputy director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and a Democratic member of the current commission, defends the current district map as an even playing field allowing both Democrats and Republicans to win Legislative seats, based on the will of the voters in a closely divided state.
“It’s proven to be an extremely fair plan,” Lamson, who also served on the 2000 commission, said. “It seems a little counterproductive to start complaining about the sins of the past.”
The current commission consists of Democratic appointees Lamson and Pat Smith, who practices law in Missoula and is a member of the Assiniboine Tribe on the Fort Peck reservation. Jon Bennion, government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce, and Linda Vaughey, a former state commissioner of political practices have been appointed by Republicans. After the four commissioners failed to reach agreement on a chairman, the Montana Supreme Court selected a former justice, Jim Regnier of Lakeside. Based on past campaign donations, Regnier appears to be a Democrat.
The redistricting commission is appointed every 10 years to redesign Montana’s 100 House districts and 50 Senate districts in order to accurately reflect demographic shifts based on data from the Census, which won’t be available until 2011. The new districts will then be in place for the 2014 election.
The commission is guided by mandatory criteria for drawing up the districts, and discretionary criteria, which basically means there are requirements that must be met, and those the commission can strive to meet as much as possible.
In 2000, discretionary criteria included trying to follow the lines of existing political units, like counties and school districts, which aids in polling logistics. Geographic boundaries, like mountain ranges or rivers also guide the commission. Additionally, the 2000 commission strived to keep “communities of interest,” like media markets, trade areas or American Indian reservations intact.
Mandatory criteria include ensuring the voting districts are compact (a relative term in sparsely populated eastern Montana), contiguous and protect minorities’ ability to vote in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
But the mandatory requirement causing the most friction between Democrats and Republicans is the one allowing for a deviation of no more or less than 5 percent of population between districts. That means that in 2000, when Montana’s population was roughly 900,000, the ideal House District had just over 9,000 people, with deviations above or below that of about 450 voters, according to a presentation by Bennion. For example, Flathead House districts, the majority of which are traditionally Republican, have populations of approximately 9,450, while some Missoula districts, which trend Democrat, have populations of less than 9,000.
Republicans have long charged that the population deviation was handled such that more under-populated Democratic districts exist, while the majority of GOP-leaning districts were overpopulated.
For Tutvedt, that’s particularly true in Northwest Montana, a mostly Republican area of the state he said is under-represented by multiple House seats, and an additional Senate seat that would overlap Flathead and an adjoining county.
“Every district in Flathead County was overpopulated, so we should have had another half a Senator,” Tutvedt said. “Not only did the Republicans not get taken care of very fairly, Flathead County didn’t either.”
Tutvedt and other Republicans also complain that the shapes of districts in Democratic areas were designed to maximize legislative representation in ways Republican areas weren’t. He points to the district map of Missoula, resembling a pinwheel, in which heavily Democratic slivers of the city are included in districts that extend out into the valley where more suburban and rural areas could lean Republican.
Kalispell’s House District 8, on the other hand, encompasses the entire downtown, carving one swing district out of an area that – if it was bisected like downtown Missoula – would likely create a much tougher landscape for Democrats in that section of the valley.
Republicans are calling for a smaller deviation than 5 percent in the current redistricting, which they say is possible due to improved technology. Tutvedt and others also want Legislative Services staff, not the commission, to draw up several possible district maps, then allow commission members to choose the one that best fits the criteria and allow minor tweaks.
“We think that that would be the fairest way,” Tutvedt said, adding that it would avoid a replay of what happened in 2000, where he asserted Lamson wrote the current district map, “in his basement.”
A 2007 study by MSU-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson found that the redistricting which took effect in 2004 did, in fact, favor Democrats. But recent history doesn’t indicate Republicans were any less partisan when they controlled the commission. The last time the GOP had a three-member majority on the commission was 1990. Once those districts took effect, in the 1994 election, Republicans picked up 25 seats in the House and Senate, gaining substantial majorities the party hung onto for 10 years.
Lamson and other Democrats say their district maps have restored balance to a map previously heavily skewed toward Republicans. He notes that since the 2000 redistricting took effect, Republicans have won seats in 58 House districts across the state and Democrats have won in 56. In that same period, Democrats have won in 26 Senate districts and Republicans have won in 28. In the 2009 Legislature, Republicans held a majority in the Senate and the House was split 50-50: this following an election that saw voters elect Democrats to every major statewide office.
“If you look at the Legislature, there certainly has not been any shortage of conservatives there,” Lamson said. “From our perspective, it was a particularly fair plan.”
The current map also gave more fair representation to the state’s Indian reservation, something Lamson called, “a pretty important accomplishment.”
As for whether Democrats would be open to smaller population deviations between districts, Lamson said previous court decisions have upheld the 5 percent deviation, and smaller deviations could entangle the state in endless legal battles.
“If you start at 1 percent, then legally anyone can challenge the plan,” Lamson said. “If you’re at 5 percent, you’ve got more flexibility to use it when you want to.”
The commission is currently holding public hearings on its discretionary districting criteria around the state, with a videoconference in Kalispell earlier this week, and executive action scheduled for April 27 in Helena.
But even at this early stage, it’s clear the commission faces a difficult task in a deeply politically polarized culture.
“Every district will get close scrutiny on why it is the way it is,” Lamson said.
This story originally appeared on the FlatheadBeacon.com.