HELENA — The panel drawing Montana’s two new congressional districts on Tuesday affirmed its pivotal vote from last week, creating an eastern and western district for the 2022 elections – but not before making one small adjustment in the boundaries.
Democratic and Republican members of the Districting and Apportionment Commission also reiterated their starkly different views of whether the western Montana district will be competitive between the two parties.
Democratic commissioners Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller said both districts unduly favor Republicans – and that the panel should have made the western district more competitive.
“Neither district on this plan is seriously competitive,” Miller said. “That’s very unfortunate for our state and for our country, which has a dwindling number of competitive congressional districts.
“Candidates are pushed toward extremes in safe districts. We will continue to experience the consequences of those extremes moving forward.”
Republican Commissioner Jeff Essmann disagreed, saying he doesn’t believe the western district will be a lock for GOP candidates.
“Whether it is represented in the future by a Democrat or Republican, it will never be considered a safe seat in the 10 years going forward that would permit any candidate to not listen to the voters of that district,” he said. “They’re going to have to listen. They’re going to have to campaign.”
The two Republicans on the panel voted for the new map, along with nonpartisan Chair Maylinn Smith.
Smith, an attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in western Montana, said Tuesday she thinks the new boundaries are “fair to all of Montana,” and that the western district could be competitive between the parties.
The new western district includes the cities of Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell, Butte and Hamilton. It divides only one county – Pondera, in north-central Montana – to place the entirety of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in the western district.
However, on Tuesday, the commission voted to adjust the boundary in Pondera County, to exclude any non-reservation land from the western district.
Miller proposed the change, saying it would transfer only 1,500 additional people into the eastern district and make the Pondera County split align with the exact boundary of the Indian reservation. The commission voted 3-2 for the change, with Smith joining the Democrats in favor.
The commission will have one final hearing Friday on the adjusted map before submitting it to the Montana secretary of state’s office – the last step before it’s formally adopted for the 2022 election.
Six candidates already are running for the western district seat, while two candidates are in the eastern district race for 2022.
Montana gained a new congressional seat because of population increases reflected in the 2020 Census. It will have two districts next year, 30 years after it lost a district, in 1992.
The eastern district covers the eastern two-thirds of the state, including Helena, Great Falls, Billings, Livingston and four Indian reservations. The district leans strongly Republican, although slightly less so than eastern districts proposed by Democrats on the commission.
Most opposition to the final lines said the city of Helena should remain in the western district, as it was 30 years ago.