Dividing Montana: Redistricting and Equal Representation on the Line

May 05, 2022

Every 10 years, states engage in redistricting - a process to redraw the geographic lines that divide districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, county commissioners, city councils, school boards, and other local bodies. It follows the census, which attempts to count each resident in the country. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates redistricting to determine how to apportion the House of Representatives among the states.

Redistricting matters because it controls access to political representation. It influences who runs for office and who is elected. Elected representatives make many decisions that affect our daily lives and need to be checked. Because redistricting can dictate political power, it must be subject to political scrutiny as it risks becoming a weapon to neutralize minority voting power.


For the first time since 1993, Montana has two congressional districts. With a nearly 10% increase in population, according to the 2020 census count, the state was able to secure another seat in Congress. On November 12th, 2021, the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission gave its final approval to redistrict the congressional lines for the state.

Following the approval of congressional districts, Montana’s bipartisan redistricting Commission will begin drawing new legislative districts in the state. In late August and September of 2022, the Commission will offer multiple regional public hearings. In November, a map should be complete. After they have agreed to the boundaries of 150 legislative seats, the map will then be submitted to the 2023 Montana Legislature to review. Even though state law requires the Commission to submit a final map to the legislature, the legislature holds no authority to approve or change the map.

Redistricting processes vary from state to state. Some states, like Montana, use independent commissions to draw maps, but most other states have the legislature pass a district map just as they would a bill through the legislature. Montana’s five-person Commission is independent of legislative control, but four commissioners are political appointees. The Supreme Court appoints the fifth if the group cannot decide on an appointee together.

Montana’s 2020 Commission Members:

Chair of 2020 Commission appointed by Montana Supreme Court – Maylinn Smith

Appointed by the Minority Leader of the House – Kendra Miller

Appointed by the Majority Leader of the Senate – Jeff Essmann

Appointed by the Minority Leader of the Senate – Joe Lamson

Appointed by the Majority Leader of the House – Dan Stusek

Montana’s 1972 state constitution brought about an independent redistricting commission. Independent commissions are thought to be more transparent and impartial by establishing standards for who can serve on the Commission and strict criteria when drawing district maps. States without independent commissions more often end up “gerrymandered”, which is the abuse of redistricting. When a map is gerrymandered it is because those in power have drawn boundary lines to influence who gets elected, often to the detriment of the other party and minority groups. Both Democrats and Republican parties are known to gerrymander and have faced court challenges.

An example of gerrymandering is vote dilution and one way to dilute the vote is to draw boundaries to disperse minority voters among several districts so that a bloc-voting majority can outvote them or concentrate them into one or two districts and leave the other districts relatively free from influence. Laws and criteria are in place to try and avoid this with the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission. Montana law mainly requires that districts must be:

  1. Contiguous and compact. Meaning that every part of the district must be connected and not overly irregular in form.
  2. As nearly equal in population as is practicable. Meaning the district populations “ideal population” is found by dividing MT’s total population (1,084,225) by the 50 Senate districts (21,685) and by the 100 House districts (10,842).
  3. Protection of minority voting rights is guaranteed in the Montana Constitution. No district plan is acceptable if it presents members of a racial or language minority group with “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”

Once the Commission considers contiguity requirements, compliance with federal and state laws, and equal representation, the Commission can look to “communities of interest,” including American Indian reservations, school districts, neighborhoods, and occupations. Communities of interest should be defined by the community themselves and not by entities outside themselves. Recognizing specific communities of interest can help properly divide counties, cities, towns, and other existing boundaries.

A major community of interest is the “American Indian/Alaska Native Alone or in Combination” population in Montana which stands at 9.3 percent of the population. These populations are expected to be considered in the drawing of districts. Montana districts lacked equal representation for American Indians in legislative districts up until the early 2000s. The year 2003 brought an appointment of a new Districting and Apportionment Commission which included Janine Pease, a citizen of the Crow Nation. This Commission submitted a redistricting plan that included American Indian majorities in six House Districts and one Senate District. Following the updated redistricting plan, voters in 2004 elected eight tribal citizens to the Montana Legislature, which was a significant win in gaining representation for Indian Country. However, with a new commission and new population shifts, equal representation is at risk.

To achieve the goal of fair and effective representation for all, Montanans must be informed and involved in the redistricting process. There are various opportunities to participate in the redistricting process by attending meetings, contacting organizations involved, and writing letters of support or opposition to elected officials.

Citizens can follow the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission’s activities, submit comments, or make map suggestions at https://mtredistricting.gov. The deadline for the Commission to submit a final legislative map is January 2023.

Montana Budget & Policy Center

Shaping policy for a stronger Montana.

MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.