Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan
The Montana District and Allocation Commission said it wants lots of public input on the maps that will determine legislative boundaries for a decade.
And it got a lot of feedback, especially as it looked at how Native American voices would be heard in Helena and how to balance the urban and rural divide in the Treasury State.
Friday marked the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on four potential legislative maps, and the public had a chance to provide input on the University of Montana campus.
The public was encouraged at the top of the meeting to provide input on how the commission should divide the state into legislative districts that will be implemented during the 2024 election cycle. The commission completed its work on the map of the congressional district last fall.
Commentators rejected the Republican card proposals, HDP1 and HDP4 drawn by Commissioners Jeff Essmann and Dan Stusek respectively, particularly regarding compliance with Voting Rights Law, with one commentator calling both proposals “absolutely racists”.
Voting Rights Law compliance is required at the federal level and also outlined in the Montana Code Annotated. If the final card misses the target, it could end up in federal court.
“If you are truly interested in hearing equitable voices from all over Montana, to include people who look like me, maps one and four should be removed,” said one commenter, who identified himself as a First Nations person to the German roots. “This is only a blatant attempt to advance the policy of this nation against my people for the past 250 years.”
Western Native Voice Board Chairman Pat Smith endorsed Democratic Commissioners Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller’s proposed maps of HDP2 and HDP3, respectively, saying they met majority minority districts needed for the native population. of the state and opposed the two Republican map proposals.
He said Stusek’s proposal eliminates the minority Blackfeet Flathead Senate district and also eliminates a minority majority district on the Flathead reservation. He said Essmann’s proposal eliminates the majority-minority Senate district along the Missouri River, which includes the Fort Belknap, Fort Peck and Rocky Boy reservations.
“These maps should be rejected because they do not comply with voting rights protections in the Montana Constitution or the federal Voting Rights Act and therefore also do not comply with this commission’s mandatory redistricting criteria,” did he declare.
Western Native Voice is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit involving three bills passed in the 2021 legislative session that they say violate the state’s constitutional voting protections and unfairly discriminate against Native Americans living in reservations.
The commission adopted criteria for legislative constituencies last summer, requiring constituencies to be “as equal in population as possible” within 1% variance with certain exceptions and conform to the VRA. Quarters must also be functionally compact in terms of distance and contiguous.
The commission also agreed to goals for the constituency process, which serve as priorities but not requirements, which include language that no card favors any political party and that the competitiveness of the district is considered.
Commentators in favor of the Republican map proposals were generally in favor of districts being drawn with the compactness criteria for drawing the map as a priority.
State Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, criticized Democratic proposals HDP2 and HDP3 proposed by commissioners Joe Lamson and Kendra Miller, respectively, for the way they were designed to include urban sections and rural areas in the same district. He said it impacts how elected officials end up legislating in Helena.
“I think it’s important that when people go to the Legislature that they are able to represent the interests of their constituents, and those are spread out from city to county,” Hopkins said. “I think you know that when we talk about the urban-rural divide, I think it creates a lot of animosity.”
Hopkins represents HD-92, which is currently drawn to include portions of the City of Missoula and Missoula County. Miller followed up after Hopkins’ comments to ask him where he lives, to which he said he didn’t live in the district but lived in the city of Missoula.
Stusek told the Daily Montanan that residents of cities like Missoula or Bozeman will have different interests than neighboring rural communities, and that sometimes people in those communities feel overlooked.
Stusek said he encourages public input, but what’s especially helpful are map-specific geographic concerns so the commission can use that information to possibly make changes.
There were also issues of compactness with regard to geographic area, particularly with regard to travel, which can be strenuous during the winter months.
“You have to think about the people who are being left behind in these counties, are they fully represented?” said Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis. “You can’t take a small county like Mineral and split it up, that just shouldn’t happen.”
Others commented that they wanted there to be both rural and urban parts in a district, saying this made districts more competitive and forced applicants to be more well-rounded.
State Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, said SD-46, the district she represents, stretches from downtown Missoula to the northeast part of Missoula County.
“It’s really good for me to go all the way to Potomac and learn more about the ranch and the cow-calf operation,” she says. “It’s really good for me to learn more about the lumber industry and the housing crisis affecting our sawmills.
“Having a constituency that looks alike, that is homogeneous, is not, I think, as healthy for our legislative body. I think it is good for us to learn more about the rural and urban aspects of Montana.
Montana Women Vote executive director SJ Howell said competitiveness is important for people who have been or have felt left out of the process.
“More competitive ridings mean candidates from every party must win the votes of Montanans in their ridings,” she said. “It makes for better candidates who better understand what’s going on with everyone in their district and better representation in those districts.”
Others have mentioned that when people feel like a card is drawn in a way that they wouldn’t have a chance of winning, they all stop participating.
Former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, who represented the Treasure State in Washington, D.C. from 1979 to 1997, and also served on the state’s first redistricting commission, called on the commission to “give a chance for minorities”.
“Our main minority, without a doubt, are the Native Americans. Their huge part of Montana’s heritage, history, progress, color,” he said.
He said that in reviewing their draft, there were some flaws, particularly with respect to Indigenous representation in the state Senate, which he said had always been “vigorous.” He told them to change it.
Stusek told Williams that 15 years ago he sat in Williams’ classroom at UM and debated parking on campus.
“Issues have changed, but it’s good to see you again,” Stusek said.
“But here is the parking problem has changed?” said Williams.
Stusek said the public hearing scheduled for Pablo on Thursday will likely be rescheduled for next week, but a formal announcement is forthcoming.
The four maps and the schedule of public hearings are available on the commission’s website.