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Critics: MT Lawmakers Inserting Themselves in Redistricting


Monday, May 10, 2021   

HELENA, Mont. -- After hearing Montana would be regaining a congressional seat, Republican lawmakers added language to a voting bill outlining redistricting criteria, which has raised concerns the Legislature is trying to insert itself in the process.

Nearly 50 years ago, an amendment to Montana's Constitution created an independent redistricting commission, with two members appointed by Democrats, two by Republicans and a presiding officer appointed by the Montana Supreme Court.

Joe Lamson, a districting and apportionment commissioner appointed by a Democrat, said the role of the legislature is limited.

"The Legislature's role is just like any other citizen," Lamson explained. "They can make advice and recommendations to the commission, but they have no constitutional power to tell the commission how they are going to do their business."

Lamson believes legislators will challenge the district maps in court with the language attached to House Bill 506, which is on Gov. Greg Gianforte's desk.

Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, the bill's sponsor, said the measure is designed to prevent partisan gerrymandering.

Jeff Essman, a districting commissioner appointed by a Republican, said gerrymandering is a concern. He acknowledged a court will decide on the relevance of the recently passed legislation.

He added what's more important for the drawing of fair districts is keeping communities together and inviting the public into the process.

"It's tough to comment on a map when it's a done deal," Essman contended. "It's a much better option for the public to participate if they can show where they would draw the lines for 100 equally populated state House districts."

Lamson noted previous attorney general opinions and state Supreme Court decisions have backed up the fact legislators have no role in redistricting.

He added the importance of an independent commission was understood at the constitutional convention when the commission was established.

"As one of the delegates said, thinking that the Legislature was going to be able to do the redistricting in the state was a little bit like thinking they're going to take out their own appendix," Lamson recounted. "They're incapable of doing it."

The U.S. Census Bureau has said it will deliver redistricting data to states by Sep. 30.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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