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Commission finalizes legislative redistricting timeline

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Commission finalizes legislative redistricting timeline

May 10, 2022 | 7:52 pm ET
By Arren Kimbel-Sannit
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Commission finalizes legislative redistricting timeline
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An old map of the state of Montana in the USA scanned from a XIX century original .

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission has finalized its schedule for drawing new state legislative districts to govern the next 10 years of elections, voting last week to begin soliciting maps from the public in June now that important prep work is nearing its completion.

By then, population data adjusted by the commission during the past several months will be available on public redistricting websites and applications. The body’s four partisan commissioners will examine publicly submitted maps, and by August each submit proposal of their own for the state’s 100 House districts.

Under the timeline the commission adopted in its May 6 meeting, the body will then hold six in-person public hearings across the state as well as three regional Zoom hearings. The commission selected regional population centers as well as important tribal communities for the road-show hearings: Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls and the seats of the Flathead Indian Reservation and Crow Tribes, Pablo and Crow Agency.

The body must select a final map for review by the state Legislature in time for next year’s session. The new map will take effect in the 2024 elections.

Every decade, Montana’s independent redistricting commission redraws legislative districts to adjust for shifting populations and ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act as well as constitutional directives for minimal population deviance between districts, among other mandatory and discretionary criteria. The process also provides an opportunity for members of the public, legislators, interest groups, party officials and more to lobby for districts that (hopefully) pass legal muster while also meeting some strategic aim.

Many of the state’s current legislative districts are outside the ideal population, according to DAC analysis, especially districts in rural and populous regions at opposite ends of the growth spectrum. The commission voted early on to set a maximum population deviance between districts of just one percent

Before tackling legislative districts, the body also drew two U.S. House Districts for Montana, something it hadn’t had the opportunity to do in the decades since the state was relegated to a single at-large district. The commission finished up that job last fall, and then set its focus on the thornier process of drawing legislative districts.

The drawing can soon begin in earnest. For weeks, the commission has been working to tackle the redistricting phenomenon known as “prison gerrymandering”: By default, the Census counts incarcerated people as residents of the prisons that confine them rather than their last home address. Because those incarcerated people generally can’t vote in their home district while inside prison, this creates population imbalances between legislative districts — something that often has a disproportionate impact on people of color.

An outside contractor the commission selected to reallocate incarcerated Montanans to their last known address finished up its work in April. According to a report from the contractor, Blockwell Consulting, about half of 2,840 total inmates in Montana prison facilities as of the 2020 census had addresses on file — the Department of Corrections has generally not automatically recorded last-known addresses upon intake.

And not all of those records had enough information to successfully reallocate every individual to their home census block. In the end, the consultant reallocated incarcerated people to their home addresses in 1,076 census blocks, as a result reallocating people away from seven census blocks with prison facilities.

The commission expects this adjustment will be available in public data by June, by which time it will seek map submissions.