The two Republican-drawn maps of proposed Montana House counties, revealed by the state’s redistricting commissioners last week, are likely to yield a supermajority for the state’s dominant Republican party.
Republicans say the outcome is uncertain, and neither the state constitution nor law books say voters are entitled to proportional representation based on their political affiliations.
But in an age of partisan polarization and an increasingly rare ticket split by state voters, Democrats are accusing the Republican Party of trying to tip the state’s maps even further in their favour. On average, Republican candidates at the state level have won over their Democratic opponents by 57% to 43% over the past decade. This number acts as a proxy for party affiliation, which Montana residents do not disclose when registering to vote.
A Montana State News Bureau review of the proposed maps found that even if Democrats won every Democratic district solidly on GOP maps, as well as every district considered “competitive” by the committee’s criteria, the Republican Party would still hold 68 or 66 seats in the House, depending on The republic map used. In the last session, Republicans secured a majority of 67-33 in the House.
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A supermajority would allow the united party to place proposed changes to the state constitution independently on the ballot, among other legislative powers. The Republican Party’s proposals, in election years most typical of voting patterns in the past decade, would give Republicans 70 or more seats in the House of Representatives.
Democrats on the state’s zoning and zoning committee indicated last week that both maps, based on recent voting trends, will result in a state assembly that matches the partisan makeup of Montana voters. They have confirmed that they are only asking their candidates for a fair shake.
In the wake of the start of the process of redrawing Montana’s legislative districts last Tuesday, to account for the state’s demographic changes over the past decade, Democrats and Republicans on the committee found little common ground other than their mutual aversion to “manipulation.”
The word is an acronym for drawing political boundaries in order to benefit one party or the other. But there is a gap that divides two Democrats on the committee and two Republicans when it comes to determining if and where that will happen. A nonpartisan fifth commissioner, appointed by the Montana Supreme Court, serves on several issues as the body’s tie-breaking voter.
Republicans generally preferred what they saw as a more straightforward approach to avoiding electoral district manipulation, emphasizing compact district shapes and following existing political boundaries.
In an interview, Republican Commissioner Dan Stoske endorsed the Helena District on the current legislative map as an example of the manipulation of geographic distribution, pointing to the gun-like areas radiating into the conservative Helena Valley from the liberal urban core of the city. He opposed similar-looking formations around Democrats’ urban strongholds in the Democrats’ proposed maps.
“It seemed very implausible to suggest that … any map with a number higher than 57 (Republican-controlled seats) was in some way ‘extreme partisan manipulation,’” Stoske said.
Fellow GOP commissioner Jeff Eastman referred to his map in less technical terms, insisting that he simply painted the shapes in a “freer approach.” Both he and Stosk said they did not use any partisan analysis to establish the political boundaries.
“It was my four guiding principles of drawing, which were in my head when I was clicking all the buttons…they were the four legally required,” said Eastman.
These four requirements derive from a combination of federal law, court precedent and the state constitution. Districts must be approximately equal in population, must be reasonably compact, each must be in one piece and must comply with federal voting rights law. Hoarding isn’t necessarily good for Democrats, who in Montana tend to congregate in dense urban areas. Drawing simple blocks around those areas can effectively focus Democrats’ votes and reduce their voting power.
Other goals espoused by the commission, including avoiding districts—”drawn unnecessarily in favor of a political party”—are discretionary, not mandatory. Republicans have consistently resisted Democrats’ insistence on competitive district drawings.
But Democrats argue that while it is impossible to know a commissioner’s intent to draw a district in a certain way, simple mathematical analysis can show the practical effect, based on past voting patterns.
Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller said this analysis “is the only way to prevent fraud…We look at the election data and ask ourselves whether the map unfavorably favors one party, and then we don’t adopt a map that does.”
Miller harshly criticized her fellow Republicans on the committee for their maps, repeatedly citing the Republicans’ already intrinsic advantage with the state’s electors.
If the overall partisan split is 57-43 in favor of the Republican Party, Democrats argue, a map not preprogrammed to generate a partisan result should send somewhere in the neighborhood 57 Republicans and 43 Democrats to the Helena House chamber — in an average election year. , at least. This is not the case with the current Montana map, where Republicans hold 67 seats in the House and roughly that percentage in the Senate.
Only 27 districts in each of the Republican Party’s proposals elected Democrats in the majority of the 10 state-level races defined in the committee’s “competitiveness” criteria. Republicans are likely to win 71 and 72 seats in the Stusek and Essmann maps, respectively, with the remaining districts winning an equal number by both parties.
The current legislative map of Montana is not very competitive, according to the criteria adopted by the commission, and none of the proposals would go far toward changing that. With “competitive” defined as both parties achieving victories in at least three of those 10 statewide races, only 9 of the state’s 100 House districts qualify.
The Democrats’ proposals would raise that number to 10. The Republican maps would lower that number to 8.
Stusek and Essmann indicated that their proposals would evolve as voters evaluated through the public comment process.
The commission is accepting public comments on the maps through its website, mtredistricting.gov, and has scheduled half a dozen public hearings across the state. The first hearing will be held on August 25 in Pablo, followed by a hearing on August 26 in Missoula and a hearing on September 1 in Bozeman.
For more information, visit mtredistricting.gov/regional-public-hearings.
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