Every 10 years, legislative districts around Montana get redrawn to accommodate for changes in population, but the process for redistricting, which is set in the constitution, is never simple.
This year the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission is closing in on their final proposal for all 100 of Montana’s legislative districts and each suggestion on the table could mean significant changes for citizens in Madison County and other parts of southwest Montana.
For the most part, redistricting is determined by population, said Jim Regnier, chair of the commission. That’s why it’s done after the U.S. Census every 10 years.
The idea is to ensure each vote in Montana counts the same, there needs to be a nearly similar population for each legislative district, Regnier said. In Montana that means each district should have a population of about 9,800, with a deviation of no more than 3 percent.
However, what complicates the process is population shifts have increased populations in some communities and regions, while draining population from others, he said.
For instance, in eastern Montana, many legislative districts are continually seeing populations decrease. While in legislative districts in Gallatin, Ravalli and Missoula Counties, the population is steadily increasing, Regnier said.
Closer to home, the legislative districts in Beaverhead and Silverbow Counties both lost population. However, Madison County’s legislative district, HD 71, which also covers the southern part of Jefferson County and the community of Whitehall, saw some growth.
To make matters more complex, the redistricting process often gets political. Regnier is a non-partisan member appointed by the Montana Supreme Court. But both Democratic and Republican leaders at the state legislature appoint two people each to make up the five-person commission.
The goal of the committee is to meet the population requirements for redistricting along with a federal requirement protecting voting rights of minorities. Once those two requirements are satisfied, the commission has agreed to other criteria including recognizing legal boundaries like town limits or county lines, and recognizing communities of interest, which means “people who have the same interest, living patterns, etcetera, you try and keep them together in a district,” Regnier said.
When you throw political interests into the mix, the process inevitably gets complicated.
“We’ve adopted criteria that we’re going to follow in the adoption of a plan,” he said. “The criteria does not include weighing or evaluating the political impact of a plan.”
However, the four partisan members of the commission know precisely how each proposed plan would impact their party, Regnier said.
“Those representatives certainly have to take their party’s interest at heart when they’re doing this, but hopefully at the end of the day won’t be solely driven by a political outcome,” he said.
But the five plans currently proposed in the redistricting process already have some local citizens crying foul.
The five plans have a variety of differences statewide, but locally, here’s a summary of what they would mean for House District 71.
Subdivision Plan – In this plan the communities of Whitehall and Cardwell would move to House District 77, which would include part of Jefferson County, as well as Butte. House District 71 would absorb part of the communities of Gallatin Gateway and Four Corners and all of West Yellowstone.
Communities Plan – This plan has been proposed by the Democratic appointees in the commission, Joe Lamson and Pat Smith. It would move Cardwell into House District 77, which would include much of the Boulder Valley in Jefferson County and the outskirts of Helena, including Montana City and Clancy. Whitehall and areas south along Highway 41 would move to House District 75, which would include part of Butte. Twin Bridges and large portions of Madison County east of Highway 41 would move into House District 72, which would include much of Beaverhead County. House District 71 would absorb Willow Creek, Three Forks and Logan.
Urban Rural – This plan would change the house district numbers all together. House District 71 would essentially become House District 63 and include parts of Gallatin Gateway and Four Corners along with West Yellowstone. Whitehall and Cardwell would move into House District 69, which would essentially be a rural Butte district. Portions of Madison County west of Highway 41 and Twin Bridges would be in House District 64. This would include about half of the East Bench area. Big Sky and Moonlight Basin would move into House District 58, which is a kind of Bozeman rural district.
Existing – In this plan House District 71 would keep Whitehall, Cardwell and Big Sky, but lose about half of the Ruby Valley with people living west of the Ruby River to Twin Bridges becoming part of House District 72, which is largely Beaverhead County.
Deviation – Under this plan, House District 71 would lose Moonlight Basin and Big Sky along with citizens living on the east and north sides of Ennis Lake and east of U.S. Highway 287 from North Meadow Creek to Norris, then south and east of Highway 84 from Norris to Blacks Ford. These citizens would all be in House District 70, which is a rural Gallatin County district. Also, areas west of Twin Bridges, much of the East Bench and the Ruby Mountains would become part of House District 72, which is a Beaverhead County district. Whitehall and Cardwell would both go into House District 74, which is a rural Helena district that also includes Boulder and the Boulder Valley in Jefferson County.
The problem with these plans are they fail to meet the communities of interest criteria, said Kim Miller, an Independent candidate for House District 71.
The communities currently in HD 71 all share a lot of similarities, from economics to values. Under most of the proposed plans, residents of Whitehall and Cardwell and some of the surrounding areas, could be represented by someone in Butte.
“If you’re not represented locally, you’re not represented at all,” Miller said. “I don’t see how someone from Butte can represent Jefferson Island and understand what they do.”
Under most of the scenarios, Madison County would have three different representatives, which just doesn’t make sense.
“That’s totally chopped up and I think it’s wrong,” she said. “Madison County as far as I remember has always been whole. That’s ridiculous to me. You don’t bust up the county three times.”
Joe Lamson, one of the Democratic appointees on the commission, points out that despite proposals to carve out different chunks of population from the current HD 71, Madison County will largely remain whole.
But the fact is Madison County is getting pressure from three sides, Butte, Jefferson County and Gallatin County.
“You’re getting pressure from at least three major directions,” Lamson said.
But the pressure from the Butte area doesn’t make much sense, Miller said. Silverbow County lost population and now deserves about 3.5 representatives. However, under the current proposals, Butte gets four representatives, with the plans making the population adjustments out of HD 71 and Madison County.
To her it makes more sense to pull population from the Butte area to include into a Beaverhead County district and leave Madison County and Whitehall in HD 71. But Butte is engaged in the process and thus far Madison County residents have been pretty silent, she said.
“We’re suffering because we’re not voicing ourselves enough,” Miller said. “If we don’t speak, we’ll lose our voice.”
Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel is also concerned about Butte’s influence in the process.
Historically Butte has been a Democratic stronghold and northern Madison County and the Whitehall area has been very conservative, Happel said. He sees the move to include Whitehall and Cardwell into a Butte house district as an attempt to mute the conservative voice in those areas.
“Frankly I think it’s a political issue to try to gain some districts for Butte and take some districts that are fairly staunchly conservative and create a more liberal voting block,” Happel said. “In my mind this is nothing short of a gerrymandering effort.”
He would like the redistricting commission to leave Madison County and House District 71 alone.
“We’re kind of getting drug into the fight in a way,” he said. “We really don’t deserve to be involved just to pacify more populous counties around us.”
The Districting and Apportionment Commission will meet all next week in Helena in an effort to settle on a plan to put out for public hearings, Regnier said.
The public hearings on the plan will take place in late fall or early winter, then the plan will be submitted to the legislature in January. The legislature won’t be able to change the plan, but they’ll make recommendations, he said.
The commission will then approve a final plan that will become law.
But there is ample time between now and when the proposed plan is forwarded to the legislature for the public to make comments or recommendations, Regnier said.
“We take public comment right up until the end and have the ability to change things right up until the end,” he said.
The commission meeting begins Aug. 13 and runs all week. For more information on the proposed plans and the commission’s work, go to leg.mt.gov/css/Committees/interim/2011-2012/districting/.