PABLO — Republican proposals for new legislative districts in Montana would reduce the number of districts with Native American majorities, an approach that has been criticized by tribal members, indigenous activists and Democrats since they were unveiled last month.
During one of two public hearings taking place on Indian reservations in the state, Monday’s meeting at the Salish Kootenai College in Pablo saw tribal members, local leaders and indigenous lawmakers asking the Districting and Apportionment Commission to preserve the current districts in which Native Americans make up a majority of voters. Democrats argued that keeping those districts intact is critical to complying with the federal Voting Rights Act.
“That helps to provide that knowledge, that long-standing reflection on the Native people in this area, in our legislative system,” Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairman Tom McDonald told the commission during the hearing.
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The meeting was sparsely attended compared with other recent hearings around the state, including in Bozeman and Missoula, where comments were more evenly divided between those supporting maps advanced by Republicans versus Democrats.
Under the current legislative map, six House districts have a majority of voters who are Native American. Montana’s 50 Senate districts are each made up of two adjacent House districts. The six majority-minority House districts currently pair up to form three majority-minority Senate districts: One spanning the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, another covering the Blackfeet Reservation and portions of the Flathead Indian Reservation and a third stretching through portions of the reservations on the Hi-Line.
McDonald argued for the importance of maintaining some form of House District 15, which stretches across much of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex to link the eastern portion of the Flathead Reservation with the Blackfeet Reservation.
Commission members disagree on the need for the sprawling district, and Republicans have suggested the lengthy driving distance between its corners may run afoul of the requirement that districts be “compact and contiguous” with respect to transportation, geography and other factors. That requirement is spelled out in the Montana Constitution, as well as the commission’s adopted criteria.
Montana’s redistricting process is overseen by a commission split between the two parties, with two members appointed by Republicans and two appointed by Democrats. Chairperson Maylinn Smith serves as the fifth, nonpartisan commissioner appointed by the state Supreme Court, and often serves as the tie-breaking vote.
In August, each of the four partisan commissioners offered up their map proposal, kicking off a series of public hearings held around the state and via remote meetings to gather public input. Smith has said she expects the maps to change once the commission meets after the November election for a lengthy work session to refine the borders of the 100 House districts.
GOP-appointed commissioner Dan Stusek’s plan is the only one of the four that wouldn’t adopt some form of HD 15, instead creating a Flathead Reservation district with 48% Native voters that doesn’t connect to the Blackfeet Reservation. And because Senate districts are formed by combining two adjacent House districts, it would automatically eliminate one of the current majority-minority Senate districts, as well.
“I made that split partially because of practical contiguity,” Stusek said in August, after unveiling his map proposal. He added, “I believe … the contiguity issues there create a district that would not be deemed that it would violate the Voting Rights Act.”
His GOP colleague, Jeff Essman, has proposed a map that retains six minority-majority House districts, but would also only allow for the creation of only two such Senate districts.
Stusek noted that part of the courts’ analysis rests on whether a minority group in a district is able to elect its “candidate of choice.” This amounts to determining whether the minority group has a clear preference in candidate, and whether a district is drawn in a way that allows members of the racial majority to vote as a bloc to defeat the minority group’s choice. He also noted that the maps are likely to change significantly as the process continues.
“We’re not drawing any lines in the sand,” he said in an interview last month. “We’re open to change if that’s what the people comment on.”
Democratic Commissioner Kendra Miller, in an analysis she submitted recently to the commission, pointed to a higher likelihood of those “candidate of choice” wins in the districts with high Native populations on the Democrats’ maps, versus those from Republicans. In an August meeting, she also accused the GOP commissioners of ignoring the Voting Rights Act in their map proposals.
Many of the commenters in Pablo stressed the shared history and culture between the two tribes, a nod to one of the commission’s adopted goals to keep “communities of interest” intact.
Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, represents Senate District 8, which currently unites the two majority-minority districts covering the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations. A Blackfeet tribal member, she highlighted the shared family trees of tribal members on the two reservations.
“Historically, we’ve fought on another, but when we got into the modern era, we have been allies politically and socially,” Webber said in an interview at the meeting.
The CSKT have a relatively diffuse Native population compared with other Montana tribes, with a reservation population that is nearly two-thirds white. Only one House seat that currently represents part of the reservation is held by a Native lawmaker, Webber said, and she worried that without a minority-majority district, the CSKT would lose their voice in the Legislature.
“To just eliminate House District 15 entirely, these people won’t have any representation,” she said. “I take that very seriously as a representative. Whatever they want, I take that seriously.”
Webber also pointed to successes by the Legislature’s Native American Caucus advancing common legislative priorities like combating invasive species and the crisis of missing Indigenous people.
Montana’s Native American population, at 9.3% of the total according to the 2020 census, has historically been disproportionately represented in the Legislature, although that gap has closed in recent decades. Indigenous lawmakers currently make up 8% of both chambers, up from just over 5% a decade earlier.