Apparently taking their lead from a Missoulian column by Will Deschamps, Republicans at a hearing of the Districting and Apportionment Commission in Missoula last night went all out attacking the Community redistricting plan proposed by Commissioners Joe Lamson and Pat Smith. That plan, they said, was gerrymandered! Of dubious constitutionality! Of all things, political! And, worst of all, Democrat!
Now it’s true that Joe and Pat are the Democratic members of the Commission, and they did prepare and submit the Community plan. And it’s also true that the Republican members didn’t submit a plan of their own. All they did is ask the legislative staff to prepare plans based on particular basic principles, such as, for example, making districts either urban or rural, but not a mix of the two. So now they are congratulating themselves on their apolitical objectivity and the purity of their intentions, and casting Joe and Pat as devious political operators.
Don’t be fooled. Republicans aren’t stupid. They certainly were able to anticipate that when they asked the staff to prepare a plan that would cram voters into a few dense city districts, those voters would be most of the Democrats, leaving the non-urban districts theirs for the taking.
As long as it breaks their way, Republicans have no objection to gerrymandering; they just don’t want you to know it. But in an ironic moment last night, Deschamps, who is chairman of the Montana Republican Party, let the cat out of the bag. Noting that 40 percent of Missoula County voters are Republican, he concluded that the county should be districted in such a way that 40 percent of our legislative delegation should be Republican as well. Let’s set aside the vexing problem of how that dubious principle could be applied in small counties with a single legislator. What Deschamps was asking for was to draw district lines in the county so that 4 (out of 10) districts have solid Republican majorities. And what do you call it when you draw district lines to assure that you have solid majorities? Gerrymandering!
Redistricting is an inherently political process. That’s why the Legislature made sure that Republicans and Democrats were equally represented on the Commission. They are there to protect political interests – their own and ultimately those of their constituents. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But it’s true that we don’t want gerrymandering. On the contrary: we want as many districts as possible to be competitive. Competition fosters better, more informative campaigns, with stronger candidates. It means a more engaged and enfranchised electorate. And it makes legislators more responsive to voters. But let’s not judge which plan most avoids gerrymandering and most promotes competition with a lot a finger pointing about how the plans were prepared or who asked for them. The proof is in the pudding. The Commission should look closely at how each plan will actually affect the competitiveness of Montana elections, and that, along with all the other criteria it has to juggle, should help it decide which plan to endorse.