Once every ten years, Montana gives a commission of nonelected citizens the power to change the state’s political boundaries. It’s called legislative redistricting and it determines the areas each state representative and senator will represent.
The redistricting commission is in the midst of their work right now. Each district represents an equal population. But, there are a lot of ways to group those populations, with different political impacts.
Basically, legislative districts split like this:
About 10-thousand people for a House District
About 20-thousand people for a Senate District.
Executive Director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns Alec Hansen says there are two main schools of thought about how you get to those populations.
“One is that you should closely follow jurisdictional boundaries,: Hansen said.
He uses municipal boundaries as an example. So you’d try to set a district within a city and this way that lawmaker would represent the interests of that city. Rural districts outside the cities would represent rural interests.
“The other idea is that we need to have more diverse and competitive districts,” Hansen said.
With this second kind of district you end up with something that look like a slice of pie, with a skinny sliver in the city and then a much larger zone that stretches out into the countryside. This second kind is more what we have right now. What’s often thought is those on the redistricting commission draw these boundaries to try to encapsulate certain voting blocks to benefit one party or the other.
And of course, there is a term for this–gerrymandering.
“The Republicans claim that the democrats hijacked the redistricting process last time,” Hansen said. That was 10 years ago, when we moved to more of the pie shapes. Republicans say that tries to assert more urban, left-leaning influence on the rural zones.
“The previous cycle the Democrats claimed the Republicans gerrymandered the districts and that produced the huge Republican majorities through the 90s,” he said.
So it goes back and forth–bringing us to today.
Five members sit on the redistricting commission. Democrats appoint two members. Republicans appoint two. They cannot be elected public officials. Then the State Supreme Court appoints the presiding officer—in this case former Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier.
“You know, no matter how arbitrarily you draw a line or objectively you draw a line, one political party or the other is going to interpret it as an advantage or a disadvantage,” Regnier said.
Regnier is talking to me there from Miles City—right before the commission heads in for the last of 14 public meetings on the redistricting process. He is there to mediate between the Republicans and Democrats on the commission to limit the influence of gerrymandering and make sure other constitutional rules are followed.
“I think the chair is really setting the tone in a very positive way this time around to make sure neither party controls the process,” said Montana Chamber of Commerce Attorney Jon Bennion–one of the Republicans on the commission. He says so far the members are learning a lot from the public and are getting along.
“It’s very cordial, very respectful. We both understand we are looking out for the interest of our party but in the end we’ll do what’s right for the state of Montana,” he said.
“Since we haven’t had to do it yet, it’s quite cordial. (laughs)” said Democratic member and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Deputy Director Joe Lamson. He says right now the group is considering 5 different potential district maps. Democrats have problems with the Republican maps, and vice versa.
“We will sit down in August and hopefully start to draw a map that takes best aspect of all the plans there,” Lamson said.
They start hashing out the initial plans mid-August. After a long process, the new districts go into effect for the 2014 election year.