Deciding district lines

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The entire state of Montana has only one member representing us in the United States House of Representatives. For most of our history we have had two. That changed in 1992 when the 1990 census resulted in Montana’s loss of a Congressional seat in the population-based House of Representatives.

Our lone U.S. Representative now represents more people than any other member of Congress. With over a million people, Montana’s congressional district is about 50% larger than the typical congressional district.

Unfortunately, national congressional districting is subject to an arcane formula that worked against us in the 1990, 2000, and 2010 censuses. There is renewed hope, though, that by the 2020 count we cannot be denied our second House member.

If so, a line will have to be drawn separating Montana’s two congressional districts. For 88 years that line divided the state into western and eastern districts. With population gains occurring in the western part of the state, a new line would have to result in a geographically smaller western district. Gallatin County for example, might have to be in the eastern district, rather than the west where it has historically been, to help equalize the population between the two districts.

Maybe the line could be drawn dividing the state into northern and southern districts, with Kalispell and Sidney both in the northern district, and Dillon and Hardin in the southern one. Such a scheme has been proposed before.

In 1910 when the census first gave us two districts, the state Legislature was responsible for creating the dividing line. It deadlocked, and for the 1912, 1914 and 1916 elections, Montana elected our two representatives at-large. The people could vote for two out of four choices. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, felt her win in 1916 was aided by people being able to select her as their first or second choice.

Now, instead of the Legislature deciding district lines, Montana is one of a growing minority of states that has given that task to a commission. Our Districting and Apportionment Commission, is made up of two Democrats, two Republicans, and a chair, appointed by the state Supreme Court when the Commission members can’t agree on someone to serve as chair. This year, the Supreme Court chose former Commissioner of Higher Education, Sheila Stearns to preside over the commission.

I know Stearns and believe she is perfectly suited for the task before her. She is both firm and fair, and will provide the balanced judgment and steady leadership the commission requires.

This is important because the commission must also draw the lines separating all the state’s legislative districts. The 1972 Constitution says the State Senate must have 40 to 50 members and the House 80 to 100. We have had the maximum numbers for nearly half a century. Will this commission decide to reduce the size of the Legislature? Will it need in some way to apportion for a new member of Congress? The implications of both these tasks could be enormous.

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President. He lives in Whitefish.

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