The federal Voting Rights Act gives populations of color equal opportunities to participate in the electoral process. That act is something redistricting commissions everywhere in the country, including Montana, must take into account when drawing boundaries.
The current Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission has set a good path in that regard, but that wasn't always the case.
History of discrimination
For decades, redistricting plans in Montana diluted Indian voting strength.
The hearings held by the 1990 Commission were a particularly low point. The five commissioners, all non-Indian, were openly hostile to creating a proportional number of majority-Indian districts and providing equal representation for Indian voters. Commissioners called the plans submitted by tribal members “idiotic” and “a bunch of crap” and one declared that it would take the federal government to step in to draw district boundaries that respected tribal interests and reservation boundaries.
So the ACLU brought a lawsuit on behalf of Earl Old Person, chairman of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe, and other tribal members in the state. Our plaintiffs challenged the fact that the plan eventually adopted by the 1990 Commission included only two majority-Indian districts, out of 100 House districts, even though American Indians comprised 6 percent of the state’s population.
It took nearly a decade for that litigation to come to a resolution, and in the meantime the next Commission adopted a plan with six majority-Indian House districts and three Senate districts. As a result, at the next legislative election, Montana elected eight tribal members to the legislature – the most of any state legislature at the time.
As public hearings traveled across the state, it became clear the message of protecting minority voting rights had been heard loud and clear, with Commissioners and members of the public making reference to our earlier litigation and to other VRA cases. Public comment at the May 15 hearing at Crow Agency was filled with fascinating and moving stories from VRA case plaintiffs such as Janine Pease, Angela Russell, Gail Small and many others who have championed voting rights in tribal communities for decades. Commissioners publicly acknowledged the importance of maintaining the majority-minority districts that were created in the wake of our lawsuit.
And that commitment to maintaining majority-minority districts that respect tribal community interests took another step in August when Commissioners unanimously approved tentative district lines for the six majority-minority House districts. In fact, those districts were the first ones voted upon and approved by the Commission, which acknowledged that complying with the VRA and approving sound majority-minority districts was a top priority. The approved districts closely follow the districts lines formally endorsed by the seven tribal councils across the state, acknowledge important cultural, social, and economic ties within the tribal communities and surrounding areas, and preserve a healthy margin of American Indian voting strength in those tribal communities.
These lines will remain tentative and subject to change until the Commission takes more public comment and adopts a final plan in November.
You have a voice in the process
There is still time for the public to comment on the plans.
Learn more on the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission website, which includes ways to provide public comment and more.