Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) — Montana just elected lawmakers for the 2023 legislative session.

Before that January session begins, the Montana Boroughs and Divisions Commission will get to the heart of its work, reshaping the Legislative Districts for the next election and beyond.

The Commission has set aside four days for working sessions next week. There they hope to draft a first draft version of the legislative map that will be used in the 2024-2032 elections.

The work is far more complex than its original task: drawing a single line to separate Montana’s two new congressional districts.

The first step is to divide the state into 100 house districts, each with a population of about 10,800. Once commissioners complete a house card, they join pairs of adjacent seats to form 50 Senate districts.

“What we saw during the sessions of Congress was perhaps a little more dramatic but a lot less detailed than what we’re trying to do now,” said Dan Stusek. Stusek is one of two Republicans on the five-member commission.

“It’s much more complicated; it’s a lot more technical,” said Kendra Miller, one of the two Democratic commissioners.

In August, the four bipartisan commissioners published their first proposals. Republicans Stusek and Jeff Essmann said the maps they produced would prioritize counties that are relatively compact geographically.

Democrats Miller and Joe Lamson said they drew maps that would emphasize competitiveness and create a legislature closer to Montana’s partisan overall structure.

However, the Commission has since received significant public comment and it is clear that any map that moves forward will be significantly altered.

“I’m pretty confident to say that none of these four will be the definitive map,” said Maylinn Smith, the commission’s chair.

As the officially bipartisan commissioner appointed by the Montana Supreme Court, Smith will likely be called upon to sever ties if the two parties remain divided on a map.

She told MTN that she will focus on the criteria the commission has adopted. They include both requirements—relative population equality, protection of minority voting rights, and compact and contiguous counties—and goals—connecting “communities of interest,” minimizing city and county fragmentation, accounting for electoral competition, and preventing “undue favoritism “ of a plan. a political party.

Throughout the process, Smith has said she would like the four partisan commissioners to reach consensus whenever possible.

“I’m willing to be the tiebreaker once, but I’m only going to cast one vote, so we’ll have to get pretty close to the final map if they can’t reach consensus,” she said.

Stusek and Miller told MTN that they believe there are areas where they can agree – but they’re still far apart in some ways.

Stusek said Republicans saw district compactness — required by the state constitution — as a key goal, along with connecting communities with common interests and geographic ties.

Responding to Democrats’ objections that their maps created too many Republican-leaning districts compared to the statewide collapse of the partisans, he said it reflected the concentration of Democratic voting strength in certain areas.

Stusek said they’re willing to have discussions about emphasizing competitive districts, a topic he says they’ve heard a lot about in public comment.

“We didn’t want a mandatory criterion, or any criterion at all, because we felt it was a little abused, but we’re certainly open to it and we’ve heard from people who appreciate and appreciate it,” he said.

Miller said the Democrats’ maps met a minimum requirement for compactness, but they wanted to weigh them against all other criteria the commission considered.

She said Republicans had agreed to accept a competition metric based on ten recent statewide elections and that the original proposals favored Republicans in many more districts than their statewide share of the vote in those elections.

Miller said even if a map might look cleaner geographically, it can still be biased towards one party.

“At the end of the day, what matters to the people of Montana for the next ten years in the legislature?” she asked. “Are people going to say, ‘I liked the shape of my legislative district?’ Or will people look at the legislature and ask if it actually reflects the will of Montana voters?”

The original maps of the two parties also differed in how they dealt with tribal areas. For the past 20 years, Montana has had six Native American majority house districts paired into three Native American majority Senate districts.

In either Republican map, two reservation-centric House districts would no longer share a common border, preventing them from being united into a single Senate district.

Miller said the change would violate the commission’s responsibility to protect native voters’ voices under the Voting Rights Act.

“If we adopted something that would break up reservation communities so they couldn’t have a vote in the Senate, that would be a quick ticket to court,” she said.

Stusek told MTN that the Republican cards should give the public a full view of potential redistribution options.

“Through this process, we’ve heard that people have certainly expressed a desire to keep Voting Act-compliant districts, and as Republicans on the commission, we have every intention of doing so,” he said.

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