By Iris Samuels Associated Press/Report for America
HELENA – Montana’s redistricting commission chair selected on Nov. 4 a congressional district map proposed by Republicans, dealing a blow to Democrats who hoped to craft a western district that would give them a better chance of winning.
Chair Maylinn Smith, who was appointed to the commission by the state’s Supreme Court, chose a map dividing the state into eastern and western districts, with the liberal college towns Bozeman and Missoula in the west but blue-leaning state capital Helena and Yellowstone National Park gateway community Livingston in the east.
Smith’s decision came after the commission’s two Republican and two Democratic members could not come to an agreement on how to divide the state into two congressional districts.
The 2020 Census gave Montana a second congressional district for the first time in 30 years, spurring a redistricting process that has included debate about the changing nature of the state. Booming towns such as Bozeman and Missoula in western Montana provide a contrast to the stagnating agricultural communities in the prairie region that covers the eastern half of the state.
Democrats had fought to consolidate blue-leaning towns into a single western district, where they would have a greater chance of winning a seat in the U.S. Congress even in a ruby-red state. Without Helena in the western district, they said it would not be competitive, giving the GOP advantages in both the eastern and western districts.
Republicans consistently pushed for maps that would follow the natural border created by the Continental Divide, with mountainous towns in the west and prairie land in the east. Such maps were guaranteed to split the state’s Democratic strongholds between the western and eastern district, weakening Democrats’ ability to win either seat.
But Smith said previous election data indicates a popular Democrat could win in the west, while acknowledging that the eastern district is more than likely to be won by Republicans in the coming years.
“With the right person (in the west), you could have a competitive district,” Smith said.
The selected map splits only one county in the state—rural Pondera County, which has a population of just over 6,000. Two of the state’s seven Native American reservations are in the western district.
Smith, an expert in Native American law, said it was important to her to have two reservations in the western district. She had also previously indicated she wanted to minimize the splitting of counties between districts. The proposal by Democrats would have had only one Native American reservation in the western district and would have split three counties.
The Montana Republican Party criticized the decision to appoint Smith to the commission last year, saying that her history of small contributions to Democratic candidates to the state compromised her decision to make an impartial decision on district boundaries.
The chosen map is very similar to the one used the last time Montana had two congressional districts. Changes from that map including placing Lewis and Clark and Park counties—home to Helena and Livingston, respectively—in the eastern district. That decision was necessary, Smith said, because of the contrast between population growth in western towns and decline of communities in the east.
“Clearly everybody we knows appears wants to be in the west these days, and I appreciate that. But that isn’t going to work because we have to have an equal population here,” Smith said.
Democrats had argued that placing Helena and Livingston in an eastern district would split them from communities with similar interests and with which they share economic and business ties. The Democrats’ map, which Smith rejected, would have put Kalispell, a growing GOP stronghold in the northwestern corner of the state, in an eastern district. That proposal drew ire from Republicans, who argued that splitting Kalispell from surrounding communities constituted partisan manipulating on the part of Democrats.
Smith cast the tie-breaking vote at the end of a full-day meeting that included nearly five hours of public comments. Her decision came after several meetings in which Democratic and Republican commissioners shifted their maps in an effort to reach consensus.
Smith said she was prepared to cast the tie-breaking vote Thursday evening only after it was evident that the two sides could not reach an agreement on their own, following hours of acrimonious debate.
The commissioners are set to meet once more next week, when they will hear another round of public comment before finalizing their decision ahead of a Nov. 14 deadline.
Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.