Montana uses a five-member redistricting commission to draw congressional and state legislative districts. Although the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission (MDAC) seeks recommendations from the legislature, the final plans are approved by a majority of the commission. The majority and minority leaders of the Montana State Legislature each appoint one member. Those four appointees appoint the fifth member, who serves as the chair. According to the Montana Constitution, commissioners may not be public officials. When the four appointees cannot agree on the fifth member, the Montana Supreme Court appoints the chair. Historically and with the 2020 commission, all the chairs have been appointed by the Supreme Court.

Community of Interest Story

The MDAC successfully resisted efforts to dilute Native American representation. Unfortunately, infighting about partisan outcomes had a prominent role in the debate over maps. Although legislators have no formal say in the approval of new districts, legislative leadership’s direct appointment of MDAC commissioners means that appointees could share legislators’ views and goals. In this cycle, Native Montanans faced vocal hostility from some legislators. For example, state Representative Brad Tschida said that it wasn’t “fair” that Native Americans are “overrepresented” in the Montana Legislature. MDAC commissioner Kendra Miller argued that Tschida’s incorrect claim was based on counting only people who state that they are exclusively Native American while excluding mixed-race Montanans. State Representative Ed Butcher stated that most legislators from reservations have “room-temperature IQs” and that “the reservation doesn’t necessarily always send their best and brightest.”

Native-led organizations and tribal leaders worked actively to fight the attempted dilution of Native voting power. The organization Red Medicine spoke out against proposals that would have divided the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations and that would have made it more difficult for Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations to elect their preferred candidate. Western Native Voice also vocally supported maps that maximized Native political power. In a public hearing on a reservation at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes spoke in favor of preserving Voting Rights Act state legislative districts that are majority-Native.

These various efforts ultimately paid off. The chair of the MDAC sided with the two Democratic commissioners to approve state legislative maps that ensured more effective representation for Montana’s Native residents. In doing so, the chair broke a stalemate that threatened the ability of the commission to complete its work on time.


Overall State Grade: B

Lessons Learned:

  • Direct appointment by legislative leadership can lead to gridlock: While Montana’s citizen redistricting commission was a model for reform at the time of its creation, it allows much greater direct participation of legislators in choosing commission members than commission models in other states. Montana’s legislative leadership directly appoints four of the MDAC’s five members, limited in its choices only by the requirement that commissioners not be public officials. In other states, legislators are limited to striking applicants or appointing them from a prescreened list of individuals. Republican commissioner Dan Stusek succinctly summarized the problematic hyper-partisan perspective this direct appointment can create among commissioners when he said, “I feel a sense of agency on behalf of the Republican leadership and the Republican Party as their voice on this commission.”
  • Organized public input can make a difference: In a state whose majority party includes members overtly demonstrating hostility to Native American representation, showing up and providing specific feedback to draft maps can still tip the scales in favor of fair representation. The participation of tribal government representatives, Native-led nonprofits, and indigenous community members played a crucial role in defeating maps that would have diluted the votes of Native Montanans.
  • Ending prison gerrymandering is an increasingly nonpartisan reform: This redistricting cycle, the MDAC ended the practice of prison gerrymandering in Montana. Prison gerrymandering skews representation by artificially inflating the population numbers of communities with prisons by counting imprisoned people as residents of the location where they are imprisoned instead of their last known pre-incarceration address. Despite a polarized atmosphere in which commissioners of different parties were unable to agree on final maps, the MDAC’s vote to end prison gerrymandering was unanimous and bipartisan.