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Government & Politics

Montana Democrats push for ‘competitive’ congressional districts, Republicans call it ‘gerrymandering'

Map CP2 proposed by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission for Montana's new congressional district.
Map CP2 proposed by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission for Montana's new congressional district.

Dozens of Montanans voiced their opinions Tuesday regarding proposed maps dividing the state into two congressional districts. Many are concerned that the districts will be drawn in a way that unfairly favors a specific political party — a practice known as gerrymandering.

In a packed room in the state Capitol during a Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission meeting, debate centered on whether commissioners should take past political leaning into consideration to draw “competitive districts.”

Some Montanans, like Bethany Schatzki of Yellowstone County, say districts where either party can win gives voters more power.

“It will ensure the best representation for Montana citizens across this great state,” Schatzki said.

Others say drawing lines that aim to yield tight elections equates to gerrymandering, or the process of influencing a specific political outcome. Republican Rep. Jennifer Carlson, from Belgrade, called the practice corruption.

“When you can see shapes and do Rorschach tests with districts," she said, "it’s a very clear indication that gerrymandering is in action."

The commission adopted competitiveness as a discretionary criteria to consider before the map-drawing began. The commission is required to follow criteria that says districts can’t favor or disfavor one political party and must be compact.

Christina Barsky, a University of Montana professor of public administration, says identifying gerrymandering is complex.

“We wouldn’t be able to just take a picture from the air and know that it’s a gerrymandered district," she said. "We’d have to know a bit about the historical voting patterns, the communities of interest within those districts.

"There’s a lot of variables that come into play.”

Barsky says gerrymandering involves dividing up political boundaries to dilute one party’s power or drawing boundaries to consolidate a party’s power to force a specific outcome.

Native American tribes in Montana have in the past fought gerrymandered districts in court, won and gained more political representation because of it.

Ta’jin Perez, deputy director of the advocacy group Western Native Voice, says in his view, creating competitive districts won’t favor any political party over another and gives everyone a chance to win.

“Making sure that at least one congressional district in our state is competitive is one of the ways to combat gerrymandering,” Perez said.

The commission plans to vote Thursday to advance one congressional map for further public comment.
Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.