The Montana Commission presents a preliminary map of the State House district

HELENA — After four days of working sessions, the Montana Districting and Appropriation Commission has released a preliminary map for Montana’s new State House districts, but strong disagreements remain between Democrats and Republicans, and much discussion remains ahead.

On Thursday, Republican and Democratic commissioners each offered new map proposals in hopes of moving closer to consensus. While their plans had a lot more in common than previous ideas, both sides said they didn’t think they could get any closer that day. In the end, Maylinn Smith, the commission’s bipartisan chair, voted to bring the Democrats’ proposal up for public comment – but she said it was a long way from final adoption.

“I think I’ve heard a lot from you guys about what you think are the problems with the card and what’s good about the card; I need comments from the public to find out what this is,” Smith said.

The Commission’s website provides links to a full-size interactive map and several statistical breakdowns of the preliminary proposal.

Republican and Democrat maps were particularly similar in places like Butte and Anaconda, Whitefish, Ravalli County, and tribal areas. They differed much more in the shape of large rural districts and in how they divided up several urban areas—notably Missoula, Bozeman, and Helena.

During the trial, Republican Commissioners Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek had said they wanted the map to include more compact counties, and they opposed designs that split urban voters into multiple counties with neighboring suburbs and rural areas. Democrats Kendra Miller and Denise Juneau had discussed the goal of a “fair map” that would create about 57 Republican-leaning and 43 Democrat-leaning House districts to match the statewide average partisan vote in ten elections recently analyzed by the commission.

When the commissioners presented their new proposals on Thursday morning, both sides said they had made significant compromises. Republicans said they created districts that are less compact and less competitive to offer more solid Democratic seats. Democrats said they improved the compactness of their map and split fewer counties, but moved further away from a strictly proportional breakdown of parties.

According to the commission’s competitive analysis calculated by Miller, the new GOP proposal included 59 Republican counties, 34 Democratic counties, and 7 competitive counties — all of which are GOP-leaning. The Democrats’ map included 55 Republican seats, 35 Democratic seats, and 10 competitive districts — with five slightly Republican and five slightly Democratic.

Miller said Thursday that the current House map based on the same metric shows 68 Republican-leaning seats, 31 Democratic-leaning seats and a real toss-up — and in the 2022 election, only one district voted for a candidate not of the party stems it tends to.

After lengthy discussions in the afternoon, the commissioners said they did not think they could make any further progress towards consensus on Thursday.

Republicans objected to several districts on the Democrats’ map for grouping rural areas with urban areas with which they didn’t have strong ties — particularly one that combined parts of Sanders and Lake Counties with part of the Rattlesnake neighborhood in Missoula. They also criticized the way Democrats were dividing up urban areas like Missoula and Bozeman.

“Your card doesn’t have a single Republican seat in Missoula County or even the possibility of a competitive Senate seat,” Essmann said.

The proposal includes a portion of western Missoula County in a Republican district shared with Mineral County, but no Republican-leaning districts within the county.

Democratic commissioners said there was no point in talking about excluding parties from county-level representation without looking at statewide representation, and Republicans said they were closer to the GOP on many technical metrics, and more changes to the card would do so favoring only one party.

“If we made the map more compact and made some seats red you would be on board, but if we made the map more compact and it was still fair then that would be a problem for you,” Miller said.

Smith said she chose to proceed with the Democratic card because it better met the commission’s criteria — though Republicans countered that their deviations from criteria like compactness were because they were trying to address Democratic commissioners’ priorities.

Although Smith had to break a tie here, she said she remains optimistic the commission can work towards an agreement on a final card.

“My goal here is still to work toward consensus on this final map because that’s what I think is best for Montana,” she said.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the preliminary map in person at the State Capitol and online during a hearing on Saturday, December 10th. You can also continue to post written public comments on the Commission’s website.