Politics

Inside the Fraught Battle Over Which New Montana Congressional District Got to Be “District 1”

Political polarization in action, but funny.

A dotted vertical dividing line passes between a statue of a man on a horse and the Montana statehouse behind it
Artist’s rendering of the pivotal moment that Montana’s at-large House district was divided in two. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Tuesday is Election Day in Montana—and what an Election Day it is!

Since the reapportionment that followed the 1990 census, the state has had only one representative in the House, elected on an at-large basis. Its only House “district,” in other words, was the entire state. (Recall that the number of House members has been capped by law at 435 for more than a century; states’ allocations are determined by their share of the U.S. population, not their total population.)

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Montana’s population has been growing quickly because of people moving from elsewhere in the country to its western cities, which are reputed to be eminently livable—clean air, great views, limited sprawl (for now), that sort of thing. After the 2020 census, the state got a representative back, and in 2022, it will be electing two members of Congress, one from each of two districts. (Some states used to elect more than one representative on an at-large basis, but the practice was made illegal in 1967 in part because of concerns that it could be employed by state governments trying to maintain all-white congressional delegations.)

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The decision of how to break up Montana into two parts was given to a redistricting commission of five people—two selected by Republicans, two selected by Democrats, and one selected by the state supreme court. The two Republicans and two Democrats on the commission are supposed to select the fifth member themselves if they can agree on someone, but they couldn’t.

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Then the commission created the actual map of the new districts. The two Republicans and two Democrats couldn’t agree on which map to use, so the woman appointed by the supreme court broke the tie. (Her name is Maylinn Smith, she’s a professor who specializes in tribal law, and she does in fact look like the kind of person a casting agency would slot in as a respected Western judge who settles a crucial dispute.) To be fair to the other commissioners, the map Smith endorsed was a compromise proposal—submitted by Republicans, but drawn in response to earlier back-and-forth, and inclusive of enough liberal-leaning urban areas in its western district that a Democrat might be able to win a seat under the right conditions.

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After that came the big decision: which district got to be No. 1. At the Nov. 12, 2021, Zoom meeting where this was hashed out, Republican Commissioner Jeffrey Essmann proposed making the eastern district No. 1 and the western district No. 2, on the reasoning that the sitting congressman, Republican Matt Rosendale, is running in the east.

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This makes internal sense to your correspondent—the senior member gets the first district—but it didn’t to the commission’s Democrats. Joe Lamson, a longtime state political figure with wispy white hair who appeared to be calling in from an attic, emitted an extremely weary and audible sigh before he began speaking. He noted that the pre-1990 western district was the 1st District, and that “it’s simple reading of the map—in our particular culture it’s predominantly from left to right. One, two.” Concluded Lamson: “I would oppose this motion because it doesn’t make any sense.”

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Then Democrat Kendra Miller spoke. “I could not care less how they’re numbered,” she said, but this was belied by the frowny angle of her eyebrows. “Why would we need to name the current congressperson’s [district] No. 1? Why would there be a preference for that?” She asked whether Rosendale had requested the privilege.

“I reside in the east and I think simply out of fairness it would be nice for the eastern district to be labeled No. 1 at this point,” Essmann said with an embarrassed chuckle. “It was not a request from Congressman Rosendale. I’ll take full responsibility.”

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Miller then pointed out that the draft version of the map that Essmann and his Republican colleague had submitted had labeled the western district as No. 1. Lamson spoke again, his exasperation having failed to recede. “The western district has always been the 1st District,” he said, “and I am confident that it will remain that, whatever you do to give some weird perceived advantage to one of the worst congressmen this state has ever seen.” (Rosendale, among other things, voted against awarding medals to Capitol police officers who responded on Jan. 6.)

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“I object to Commissioner Lamson,” said Essmann.

Said Smith, the chair, “Can we just keep this to the numbering system?”

“I wish we could, ma’am, Madam Chairman,” said Lamson, “but sometimes we have to say what we believe, and I apologize if I offended anyone’s sensitivities.”

Smith was shuffling through papers looking for the draft map. The other, younger Republican commissioner spoke and said he agreed with his colleague. Smith called for a vote, which was split. Lamson’s “NAY” was the loudest.

“I would vote that we kept the map as we had circulated it, with District 1 in the west and District 2 in the east,” she said, running her hand through her hair. “Any additional motions?” She never did find the draft, it looked like.

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