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Redistricting should follow east-west divide

by Daily Inter Lake
| October 10, 2021 12:00 AM

The clock is ticking for the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission. Within the next few weeks, this group comprised of two Republicans, two Democrats and a single nonpartisan member will have to decide how to draw new political boundaries to accommodate Montana’s second U.S. House seat.

Using population data from the most recent Census, the commission draws districts with approximately the same number of people in them.

The group narrowed the options to nine maps last week, and the contrast is striking.

Republicans favor dividing the state geographically along the Continental Divide. Previous elections indicate this gives their party the best chance of winning both House seats by keeping Montana’s two liberal-leaning college towns out of the same district. All of their proposals bump Bozeman into the east, with two options going as far as splitting Gallatin County in half.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are entirely unconcerned about the natural geographic east-west split. All of their maps lasso most, if not all, of reliable red Northwest Montana into the east. While this plan all but assures the east would go to the GOP, it makes the so-called southwestern district competitive with Missoula and Bozeman in the same voting block.

One head-scratching option from the Democrats divides Flathead County, with Kalispell going to the east, and Whitefish and Columbia Falls going to the west.

Pulling the Flathead out of the west drew the ire of GOP commissioner Jeff Essmann, who said the Democratic maps “fail the constitutional test of compactness.”

Democrat commissioner Joe Lamson countered that the Republican choices “do not meet the stated goal of not unduly favoring one party over another and trying to create competitive maps.”

While competitiveness is important, it shouldn’t come at the cost of ripping apart counties and geographically similar regions.

In the Flathead, manufacturing, forestry, health care and tourism are pillars of the community. It just doesn’t make sense to pair those issues with eastern Montana counties that are fueled by livestock, agriculture, oil and coal.

If the tables were turned, would Democrats advocate for Missoula voters to be in the same district as Glasgow and Wibaux?

Of course not.

Montana is a big state, and a natural east-west split following the Divide is the common-sense approach the commission should follow.

And Democrats shouldn’t be so sure that drawing the boundaries this way won’t offer an opportunity for competitive elections, with Missoula, Helena and Butte in the same block, and a rapidly growing Bozeman staking its claim in the east.

There’s still time to join the discussion. The commission will hear testimony at its Oct. 19 work session and then select a final map Oct. 21.

All of the maps are posted online at mtredistricting.gov. People can provide comments through the interactive maps, or by visiting online at mtredistricting.gov/contact/ or emailing districting@mt.gov.