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New congressional boundaries fair and rational

by Daily Inter Lake
| November 14, 2021 12:00 AM

While other states tussle with attempted power grabs through the ongoing congressional redistricting process, Montanans can be proud to have steered clear of manipulated boundaries that slither across the state with the sole purpose of political gain.

Finalized Friday, Montana’s new map splits the state into eastern and western districts along the Rocky Mountain Front, generally following the same lines that were in place the last time Montana had two seats in the U.S. House in the 1990s.

The new boundaries are clean, logical — and according to the redistricting commission’s nonpartisan chair Maylinn Smith, “the fairest for Montana.”

Smith was tasked with making the final selection after Republicans and Democrats on the commission could not come to an agreement following months of contentious debate.

While Democrats had argued that creating competitive districts should be a key factor in the final choice, Smith rightly rejected their gerrymandering proposals — including one that dragged half of Flathead County into the “east.” That map drew the ire of many in the valley, including a good bunch who traveled to Helena to share their rancor with the commission.

Thankfully, the final congressional map keeps all but one county — rural Pondera — fully intact, and avoids lassoing an obviously western region into a part of the state it has less in common with geographically, culturally and economically.

Democrats will grumble that neither of the new districts offer their party a good chance at winning, and given the current state of Big Sky politics, they are probably right about that. Yet, that has less to do with where the boundaries are drawn and more about the party’s failure to connect with Montana’s many independent-minded voters.

And with the new map placing the liberal-leaning college towns of Missoula and Bozeman in the west along with blue Butte, Democrats should have a puncher’s chance to win that district if they get organized and find candidates that relate to more Montanans.

In fact, according to commission chair Smith, past voting data indicates that a Democratic candidate would have won 25% of the time in the western district, based upon voting records for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats and the House seat between 2012 and 2020.

The GOP already has its frontrunner in the western district with former U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, who is leading in campaign fundraising in the early going. Kalispell’s Al Olszewski is also in the mix.

Time will tell if the Democrats can make it a competitive election.

If not, they can’t blame the transparent redistricting outcome that rejects political considerations in favor of rational reasoning and objectivity.