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Thoughts on redistricting

by By Sen. Jason Ellsworth
| May 29, 2024 6:00 AM


With Primary Election Day rapidly approaching, we will soon start to see the impacts of the legislative districts map drawn by Democrats.

First, let’s look at how we got the districts that are brand new for this year’s election.

The Montana Districting Commission, which draws the maps, is made up of five members.

Two each are appointed by Republicans and Democrats. If those four can’t agree on the fifth member (which they almost never do), then the Montana Supreme Court appoints the final person.

The Court first appointed a Democratic donor. After that person resigned, the Court appointed another Democratic donor. In fact, all four of the commission members appointed by the Supreme Court since 2000 have been Democratic donors.

Democrats have enjoyed a 3-2 majority on the commission for 30 years worth of legislative maps thanks to the Montana Supreme Court.

Unsurprisingly then, Democrats got their preferred legislative map.

The map Democrats chose will end the Republican supermajority in the Legislature. However, due to the geographic distribution of voters in Montana, Democrats had to draw more safe Republican districts and fewer competitive ones in order to create enough safe Democrat districts to guarantee Republicans can’t reach supermajority status again.

In the 50-member Senate, the map adopted by Democrats created 27 safe or very safe Republican seats and only four truly competitive districts. Forty-six out of 50 state senators will likely be chosen by primary election voters, not voters in general elections.

It’s a similar story in the 100-member House, with 52 Republican seats and only nine competitive districts. Ninety-one of state representatives will likely be decided in the rapidly-approaching primary election.

Now let’s look at the potential ramifications of Democrats’ decision on how to draw the maps.

To avoid another potential Republican supermajority, Democrats locked themselves into a “permanent” minority, betting that a safe minority was better for them than risking another super-minority, like they currently have.

What I don’t think Democrats considered is that their strategy also made the average Republican district more conservative. Republicans may not reach supermajority status again, but the slimmer Republican majorities are likely to be more conservative than they have been in the past.

Most big-ticket items in the Legislature only take a simple majority to pass or kill. A more conservative Republican majority could backfire for Democrats’ policy priorities.

If Democrats’ big priorities go down in flames in the 2025 legislative session, my guess is we’ll be able to draw a direct line backwards to the primary election results, to the new legislative maps enacted by Democrats, and ultimately to the Montana Supreme Court sticking its thumb on the scale of the Districting Commission in favor of Democrats.

Montana Democrats made a huge gamble with the redistricting process.

On June 4th, Primary Election Day, my wager is we’ll have a good sense of how that bet is going to work out for them.

Senator Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is the President of the Montana Senate