By Niki Zupanic
ACLU of Montana Public Policy Director
Roger Baldwin's admonishment that "No fight for civil liberties ever stays won" is an oft-repeated quote here in the ACLU of Montana offices, because it's a powerful reminder that our past victories can quickly become meaningless if we fail to defend them into the future. So it was with that thought in mind that we girded ourselves for the years-long process of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, the five-member independent body that draws the state's legislative districts.
Decades ago, earlier Commissions thought nothing of ignoring the mandates of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) by refusing to draw district boundaries that preserved American Indian voting strength, even going so far as to divide a single reservation community among as many as eight different districts. After reading about the Commission proceedings from the 1980s, and how members openly dismissed plans put forward by tribal communities, often with offensive and disparaging comments, I prepped for a new round of Commission hearings by studying VRA case law, including the litigation that we brought after the 1980s plan was adopted.
But as the public hearings traveled across the state, it became clear that my message of protecting minority voting rights had already 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 this week when the 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, but the quick work of the Commission to approve these districts has me thinking that the promise of the VRA will continue to be protected.