Montana's new proposed legislative map brings changes, disagreements

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 7:12 PM, Dec 27, 2022

HELENA — After weeks of debate, the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission has brought forward a tentative map for the next ten years of elections to the Montana Legislature.

The commission voted 3-2 last week to submit the proposed House and Senate district maps to the Legislature for comment, with the nonpartisan chair and Democratic members in favor and Republican members in opposition.

“Overall, you can see that the commission has really balanced all of our competing criteria and goals – and we've moved a long way on priorities the Republicans set,” said Kendra Miller, one of two Democratic commissioners.

“I'm disappointed in the final product that we're forwarding to the Legislature,” said Dan Stusek, one of two Republicans on the commission. “I do not view it as quite a fair map; I think it was slanted in favor of our Democratic colleagues.”

Tentative Legislative Map
The tentative Montana House and Senate district map advanced in December 2022 (Courtesy: Montana State Library)

The current legislative map has been in use for House and Senate elections since 2014. In the new tentative proposal, population trends have led to changing representation:

  • The current map includes nine House districts fully within Gallatin County, and a tenth covering part of the county. The proposed map still has nine districts entirely within the fast-growing county, plus a tenth mostly inside and three more that include pieces of the county.
  • Flathead County currently has eight single-county districts and would have nine in the tentative map. Other fast-growing counties like Broadwater and Richland also had their districts reshaped.
  • There would still be three House seats centered on the city of Butte, but one of those seats would be paired in a Senate district with Anaconda-Deer Lodge County. Currently, Deer Lodge County is split into two House districts and paired with counties like Powell and Granite.
  • In large rural districts across central and eastern Montana, the shapes changed significantly.

After the commission advanced its first tentative map proposal, they made several amendments, including placing the city of Belgrade in a single House district and adjusting lines in southern Flathead and northern Lake County.

According to data compiled by Miller, 56 of the districts in the tentative House map voted for Republicans in at least eight out of ten statewide elections commissioners looked at. 35 of the districts voted for Democrats eight out of ten times, and the remaining nine were considered “competitive” – with four voting more often for Republicans and five voting more often for Democrats.

In the Senate map, the data shows 29 districts have been strongly Republican, 18 have been strongly Democratic, two were competitive but voted more often for Republicans, and one voted five times for each party.

Overall, that would suggest about 60% of seats would be expected to lean toward Republicans, which could make it harder for the GOP to maintain the two-thirds supermajority – at least 67% of seats – they currently hold in the Legislature.

Stusek said Republicans weren’t happy with how district lines were drawn in places like Lewis and Clark County and Gallatin County, where urban areas were divided up into multiple districts that combined them with suburban areas – a decision he contends advantages Democrats.

“I think the average political insider or person who pays attention to politics is going to see a map that just was drawn and eliminates double-digit Republicans, likely, between the two legislative bodies – is going to be view that and say, ‘Wait a minute, I thought this was supposed to be a bipartisan process,’” he said. “I think folks will see the map and they'll say, ‘Oh, Democrats look like they did pretty well in this process.’”

Throughout the process, Democrats had called for a map that gave each party a number of seats corresponding to their share of the statewide vote. Miller argued the tentative map still gave Republicans a slight advantage, since they averaged 57% of the vote in the statewide elections the commission analyzed.

“They are far less likely on this coming map to gain supermajorities with less than 60% of the vote statewide, like they just did in 2022,” she said. “If that feels like an injustice to them, that's the way it's going to feel to them. But I don't think that the average Montanan would agree with that sort of framing – that because they currently have supermajorities, they are owed supermajorities for a decade.”

Stusek said it wasn’t surprising or an indication of advantage for the majority party to win some more seats than its percentage of the statewide vote.

Miller said the commission had attempted to address other issues like limiting county splits, and they made further amendments at recent meetings in response to feedback from incumbent GOP lawmakers.

Both Stusek and Miller said they felt the pairing of House seats to form Senate districts did not receive as much attention as it should have. That pairing, as well as the assignment of senators elected in 2022 as “holdovers” to represent new proposed districts through the 2026 elections, took place at meetings last week.

The commission is now set to officially present the map to the Legislature on Jan. 6. Lawmakers will have 30 days to give feedback on the proposal. The commission will then have 30 more days to consider those comments – though they are not required to make any changes – before finalizing the map.