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Montana needs clear, objective rules to prevent gerrymandering

by Terry Nelson, Maryrose Beasley, Sarah Swanson, Chris Shipp, Tim Stark, Vondene Kopetski
| June 20, 2021 12:00 AM

This April, Montana became the first state in history to gain back a congressional seat that we lost in a previous redistricting process, giving Montana a unique opportunity to double our representation in the U.S. House. Given the seriousness of drawing our newly given second Congressional district, the Montana Republican Party organized a redistricting committee to advise, engage and monitor the commission’s process.

As representatives of the MTGOP committee, we are devoted to organizing and engaging stakeholders from across the state to ensure the state’s redistricting commission acts in a fair and transparent manner and is free of the political practice of gerrymandering.

Unfortunately, the most recent commission meeting revealed stark differences between the political parties. At the heart of the discussion was whether the lines of political subdivisions such as cities, towns, counties and Natvie American reservations will be observed and whether this is a mandatory or discretionary (i.e. can be ignored).

The Republicans proposed that political subdivision lines should be followed “to the greatest extent possible” after reviewing data generated by the National Council of State Legislatures at Redistricting Criteria (ncsl.org). For context, 42 states require following political subdivisions for state legislative districts and 31 states require the same for congressional districts. Political subdivisions provide objective criteria that will minimize the ability of partisan line drawers to create gerrymandered districts, whereas “communities of interest” are more subjective. For example, Montanans can easily review a proposal and instantly see if a city, county or reservation has been divided but the same cannot be said for “communities of interest.” We strongly believe objectivity is what Montanans expect from this process, and the Democrats proposal ensures the opposite.

Additionally, Republicans on the commission proposed limiting the population deviation of our congressional and legislative districts to a minimum in an effort to have equal population among our districts. While federal law limits the discrepancy in sizes of congressional districts, state legislative district sizes vary widely for political purposes. In Montana’s 2000 election cycle, three Democrat commissioners used the maximum deviation to overpopulate many Republican districts and under-populate many Democrat districts. Ten years later, the 2010 commission limited the maximum deviation to 3% which was lauded by then chairman, former Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier. Now, the Democrat commissioners are pursuing a 5% deviation so they can resume their partisan effort to pack and crack Republican voters. If the 3% standard in 2010 was an “improvement” according to Democrat Commissioner Joe Lamson at the recent meeting, why would we go backward?

Even more concerning is that Democrats are once again banging the drum on the need for “competitive” districts. This argument misses the mark and is nothing more than a political talking point to achieve political outcomes. In the 2020 election, Lewis and Clark County only gave 48.9% of their votes to national and statewide Democrats. One would think that if the Democrat goal is to create competitive districts, roughly half of the districts would be held by Republicans. But of the nine total House and Senate seats fully within Lewis and Clark, Republicans hold only 22% (two) of the seats. This discrepancy is because a lot of Republicans were jammed into districts where margins of Republican victories ranged from 20 to 60% of the vote while Democrats in Helena won with a 10% margin. We should take politics out of the system; not inject it at every turn.

The most neutral and fair way to draw the lines is to abandon subjective criteria like “competitiveness” and “communities of interest,” and instead comply with the Voting Rights Act and create clear objective standards; such as recognizing city, county and reservation boundaries to the greatest extent possible and following a minimal population deviation.

Final decisions on the rules for drawing our new Congressional and state legislative districts will be made on July 8 and 9 after the commission hears from Montana voters. The MTGOP Redistricting Committee asks that Montanans weigh in by contacting the Commission with your opinions at http://www.leg.mt.gov/districting/2020-commission/redistricting-input/

MTGOP Redistricting Committee members Terry Nelson, Ravalli County; Maryrose Beasley: Musselshell County; Sarah Swanson, Valley County; Chris Shipp, Yellowstone County; Tim Stark, Yellowstone County; Vondene Kopetski, Missoula County.