After four days of discussion and revision, the Montana New County Commission voted on a partisan basis — with the impartial chairman as the deciding vote — in favor of a Democrat-proposed legislative map.
The map will be open to public comment and likely further changes.
“This is a preliminary map. I expect robust public comment on this map,” Chair Maylinn Smith said Thursday.
The commission is tasked with redrawing the lines following the most recent US census, and both Republicans and Democrats presented their respective maps Thursday morning of how the state might be divided into 100 legislative districts.
Democrats on the four-member panel praised the selected map as showing more competitive counties, but Republicans said the lines would freeze them in at least some more liberal areas.
“Honestly, there isn’t a single county on the map where I can say we’ve made tangible improvement and ability to win,” said Commissioner Dan Stusek.
Though the debate became heated at times, the Montana Supreme Court-appointed commission chair said she saw great progress and consensus in the selected map.
“By focusing on the things you don’t agree with, we make it seem like there isn’t much agreement. When I look at the map, there’s a lot of consistency in it,” Smith said. “We’ve come a long way from where we were on Monday to today.”
The District and Tracing Commission consists of four commissioners, two of whom are selected by Legislative Democrats and two by Legislative Republicans.
Each side pointed to compromises they made in their latest map based on considerations from across the aisle that were put forward throughout the week and public comments gathered statewide in early fall.
Denise Juneau is the newest member of the Commission, replacing Commissioner Joe Lamson, who resigned in October citing health concerns. Juneau, a former Superintendent of Public Instruction, summarized the Democrats’ proposed map during her presentation, saying it meets all mandatory criteria and targets for legislative districts.
She said the map proposed by Democrats avoids dividing up more counties and small communities than previous proposals, a concern Republicans voiced early on during discussions of the criteria.
Commissioner Kendra Miller, another Democrat, said her proposed map would produce more competitive counties compared to the seven counties proposed by her Republican counterparts — 10 with evenly distributed political leanings.
Competitiveness is one of the Commission’s objectives, but not a criterion for creating legislative districts.
Republicans on the commission rejected the idea that the chosen map offered more competition. Rather, Commissioner Jeff Essman said the Democrats’ map would lead to more secure Senate seats and that the “real game” will be Senate pairing, where drawn representative districts are combined to form the 50 Senate districts.
“More secure seats, listen less to the voters,” said Essmann.
Republicans said their map also meets all criteria and targets for legislative districts.
Commissioner Stusek said the Democrats’ card effectively eliminated Republicans in Missoula and Gallatin counties.
“There are a lot of red bags in these areas, communities of interest, which unfortunately we see as expendable to achieve a national goal,” he said.
Stusek, a Helena resident, said he wants to see a competitive county in Lewis and Clark County as he believes it’s a 50/50 region.
“We have not been able to successfully change the Gerrymander that now exists here. For me personally, that part of the state hurt a bit,” he said.
Stusek said it was “kind of a devastating outcome for Republicans.”
Republicans have won both statewide congressional elections and will have a supermajority in the next legislative session.
Stusek had proposed a card over the summer and said during the meeting that he never expected that card to be adopted, a move Miller said was strategic.
“We ask for fairness. We ask for the following criteria,” she said. “We’re not going to come out of this with the upper hand and we know it.”
But after the meeting, Stusek said Republicans on the commission hadn’t submitted any cards with an extreme advantage.
“It could have been maybe 15, 20 more seats than it was,” he said. “We started with seats that we thought were logical and compact. But we knew we had to move and make compromises, which we did.”
According to the published agenda, the commission will meet again on Dec. 10 to hear public comments on proposed House district lines, potential Senate pairings and the assignment of bridge senators.
The commission is expected to meet again on December 15 to adopt the Senate’s final map and pairings, meet again on December 21 to review the plan and gather public comment, and will present its map to the 2023 legislature in January .