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Montana GOP Pushes For More Redistricting Power After State Gains Congressional Seat

Joe Lamson, a Democrat on Montana's districting commission, is particularly fond of this map showing the state's legislative districts as drawn in the early 2000s. Lamson says Montana historian Harry Fritz called it, "The best map drawn in Montana since Lewis and Clark came through."
Joe Lamson, a Democrat on Montana's districting commission, is particularly fond of this map showing the state's legislative districts as drawn in the early 2000s. Lamson says Montana historian Harry Fritz called it, "The best map drawn in Montana since Lewis and Clark came through."

For the past 30 years, Joe Lamson has been crunching the numbers trying to figure out how Montana could regain the congressional seat it lost after the 1990 census. He says it's something he never thought would happen in his lifetime.

"The growth rates in the other parts of the country were just ... we just could never keep up," says Lamson, a Democrat who was a political staffer and campaign manager and now serves as one of the five members of the state's independent districting commission.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Montana has now caught up. With a nearly 10% increase in population, according to the 2020 count, the state was able to secure the 434th seat in Congress, growing its number of districts from one to two.

Republican lawmakers rush for control

In Montana, the job of drawing lines for new districts is no longer up to lawmakers, like it is in many states. The 1972 state constitution brought about the independent commission Lamson sits on, which is made up of two Democrats, including Lamson, two Republicans and a nonpartisan presiding officer.

The goal is to try to take some of the politics out of redistricting.

But less than a day after the news of the state's additional congressional seat was announced, state Republican lawmakers pushed their way into the process by rushing a policy through the legislature that establishes parameters for how the district lines should be drawn.

"No one likes gerrymandering districts and that's my primary concern," says Republican state Rep. Greg Hertz, one of the policy's supporters. "People need to be represented in their common areas where they live together, in the valleys they live together, in the communities they live together. It's much easier to contact your representatives when we have districts that look like that."

It's still unclear if Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte will support the Republicans' moves.

Democrats pushed back hard against the proposal, saying the bill is unconstitutional and that the districting process should not be politicized by the legislature, to no avail.

Joe Lamson has been crunching the numbers trying to figure out how Montana could regain the Congressional seat it lost after the 1990 census. He says it's something he never thought would happen in his lifetime.
Shaylee Ragar / Montana Public Radio
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Joe Lamson has been crunching the numbers trying to figure out how Montana could regain the congressional seat it lost after the 1990 census. He says it's something he never thought would happen in his lifetime.

This sort of attempt isn't new. In 2003, the Montana legislature passed a bill that attempted to influence the districting process. The state Supreme Court struck it down, saying the state constitution "assigned the task of redistricting to the Commission — an independent autonomous entity — and limited the Legislature's role to that of making recommendations," only after the commission releases its map.

A history of gerrymandering

In 1986, members of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes challenged school board and county commission districts for diluting Indigenous voting power. The court agreed, and when the districts were redrawn, a Native American was elected to the county commission for the first time ever.

"This isn't something that should benefit one or the other. This should benefit the people. These districts should recognize and be appropriately representative of the communities that are in Montana," says Ta'jin Perez, who is the deputy director of Western Native Voice, a nonprofit that advocates for Native American empowerment. He stresses that Native Americans have historically been underrepresented in the state.

Perez says the nonprofit will be organizing community outreach events to encourage people to get involved in the districting process, which has a public comment proponent. He says he and others will be ready to fight unfair districting again if needed.

"Going out to vote is a way of honoring our ancestors and honoring the people in the past who have made those kinds of sacrifices and who have gone into courtrooms to fight those battles for equal representation."

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.