One of the most thankless jobs in all of politics is reapportioning legislative district lines to comply with the Census — at least it’s thankless if you hope to do it in a bipartisan, fair way.
Unlike most states, Montana has set up a commendable system under which a five-member panel — two Republicans, two Democrats and an impartial presiding officer — listens to ideas from the public at a series of hearings, including one in Havre, and goes through a point-by-point process to redrawing the lines.
On the whole, the panel that has put together the new district lines that will take effect in the 2014 elections did a commendable job. Chairman Jim Reigner showed the patience of Job in balancing the interests of the Republican and Democratic members. The end result appears far more balanced than those in many other states where politicians carved up district lines in the wee hours to favor their political party and shaft their enemies — all without hearing word one from the public.
Four House districts will be created in our part of the Hi-Line.
Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservations will be in one district. House District 32 consists largely of Native Americans who for decades were shut out of the state government process. Since the state began creating districts, Natives have had an active voice in state government. They need to be heard in Helena, and District 32 continues to give those voters a seat they would not have if the reservations were carved up and scattered to the neighboring white-dominated districts.
District 30 will consist of the city of Havre and some adjoining lands. Some see this new alignment as a slight to Havre. Havre residents have been the dominant force in two districts for at least three decades and now Havreites will be packed into one district. The good part: Havre will be guaranteed one House member. The bad news: The day of two Havre residents in the House are over.
The Havre district meets the requirement that House districts be compact and contiguous and that the districts contain a sense of community. Most Havreites work, sleep, shop, play and go to church in the new House district.
The other two districts don’t quite live up to those standards.
One of them, District 33, starts in North Havre and stretches west in a submarine-shaped district that goes down U.S. Highway 2 to the west side of Glasgow. It is sandwiched in between Canada to the north and the Indian reservations to the south. The entire area consists of farms and small towns. Other than that, they have little in common.
Does anyone in North Havre shop, eat, play or go to church in Glasgow? Think of some poor soul who lives within the shadows of the Welcome to Havre sign being represented by a politician from Glasgow. In all likelihood, such a person would look to the Havre representative as their representative, even though they had no say who that person will be.
The other rural district, District 29, is no better. It starts at the Canadian border in Liberty County and swoops down to include a slice of northern Cascade County. Along the way it picks up communities like Rudyard, Kremlin, Loma and Big Sandy. Know anybody in Goldstone who drives to Big Sandy to get his hair cut?
The Hi-Line lost population in the Census, while the rest of the state grew. So we will lose a seat. But a rural district with Havre at the center could have been drawn.
It almost looks like the bipartisan commission did its remap of the state and when it was nearly done, stuffed all the leftover land in the Hi-Line districts.
Certainly not every district can be as compact, contiguous and community-centric as the Havre district. But we think the Hi-Line deserves better than what it got.
Sometimes in Helena, the strongest arguments win. We should give that a try.
When that doesn’t work, remember, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.