HELENA — Starting in 2023, Montana will once again have two members in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Census Bureau made the announcement Monday afternoon during a news conference to release the preliminary results from last year’s census. The data show that Montana’s population grew from 989,415 people in 2010 to 1,085,407 people in 2020 – an increase of 95,992 residents over 2010, or nearly 10 percent.
Every 10 years, the Census Bureau is tasked with counting the country and states’ populations. States are then awarded seats in the House based on their proportion of the national population. In addition to forming the basis for Congressional, legislative, and school districts, census data is used to appropriate federal funding. This appropriation helps fund more than 300 programs for things such as highway planning, healthcare, educational programs, and community infrastructure.
Montana had two U.S. House members between 1913 and 1993. Now Montana will become the first state in U.S. history that had two seats in the House, lost one, and then got it back. For the last 30 years, Montana has been the most underrepresented state in the House, with by far the largest population in any single Congressional district in the country.
Now, each of Montana’s two congressional districts will actually have smaller populations than the national average – about 540,000 each. In a state like California, districts will have closer to 760,000 people.
Dr. David Parker, head of the Political Science Department at Montana State University, said the at-large district was daunting for candidates campaigning for Congress, as well as for representatives once they were elected. He said House members have a smaller budget for travel and setting up regional offices than senators do, so it was tougher for representatives to cover the whole state.
“We’re going to get more intimate representation,” Parker said. “You’re going to see your House member a lot more, and I think that’s just good for the representative process.”
Now, Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission will be tasked with drawing the boundary between the two congressional districts. The first elections with the new district lines will be held in 2022.
“This is a great day for Montana. With a second congressional seat, Montanans will have another voice in Congress to work on their behalf,” said Governor Greg Gianforte in a news release. “It’s critical we avoid the traps of partisanship and gerrymandering as our new district lines are drawn. Our new districts should be compact, keep our communities together, and make common sense.”
Jeff Essmann, a Republican member of the districting commission, told MTN he was confident the state would secure its second seat.
"I was a little nervous, but based on the signals we were getting from the Census people, I felt Montana was in pretty good position,” he said.
Essmann said they will now be getting to work, setting up their rules and criteria for drawing a district line.
During 2020, state leaders made a big push to encourage people to fill out their Census forms – knowing a larger population would mean more federal funding, and possibly more representation.
“I couldn't have been happier, especially for all the people who have worked so long and hard in Montana to make this Census work,” said Joe Lamson, a Democratic member of the Districting and Apportionment Commission.
The Districting and Apportionment Commission includes five members – two selected by Republicans, two selected by Democrats and a chair, selected in this case by the Montana Supreme Court.
Monday’s release only included states’ overall population. The Census Bureau is still working on more specific information at the local level, which the commission will need to finish their work. Leaders say they could start providing that information to states in August, with the full data not being completed until September.
“Honestly, the redistricting committee’s going to have to move fast,” said Parker. “The other thing that’s going to be really a challenge is, if you’re a prospective congressional candidate thinking about running for office, you’re probably going to have to start raising money and making an announcement before those lines are clear.”
In states with multiple House seats, congressional candidates are not required to live within the district they’re running in.
The Census Bureau also announced Texas will gain two seats, and that Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Oregon will each gain one.
California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia will each lose one seat.
However, this may not be the final word. Some states that lost seats in this apportionment may file legal challenges over the census data.
By the method the federal government uses to apportion the House, Montana was the second-to-last state to receive an extra seat. Minnesota was the last, and New York was the first state shut out. During Monday’s news conference, Census Bureau leaders said, if New York had just 89 additional people, it would have received the last seat instead of Minnesota.
Parker said the fact that Montana’s wasn’t the last seat awarded meant it was less likely legal action could threaten it. He also said it may be difficult for any of those challenges to succeed, since the U.S. Supreme Court has been reluctant to rule on census decisions.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated, with additional information and quotes.