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Lawsuit challenges Montana PSC districts over population inequality

Montana PSC
Posted at 4:52 PM, Dec 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-27 18:52:55-05

HELENA — Candidate filing for Montana state elections is set to begin in just over two weeks. However, for people planning to run for the state’s Public Service Commission, there’s some new uncertainty, as a lawsuit is challenging the current district map.

The plaintiffs – former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown of Whitefish, former Gallatin County commissioner Don Seifert and Montana State University student Hailey Sinoff – filed suit in federal court earlier this month. They argued the current PSC districts are unconstitutional because their populations vary too widely. They asked the court to invalidate the map and, if the state isn’t able to come up with a solution, potentially create a new district plan.

Two seats on the commission will be opening next year. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy issued a temporary restraining order, preventing candidates from filing for the District 1 and District 5 seats until a hearing can be held on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. That hearing is set for Jan. 7, 2022, at 9 a.m., in Missoula.

The PSC has five members, each elected from a geographical district. Unlike congressional or state legislative districts, there is no provision in state law requiring those districts to be redrawn after each census.

The current district map was drawn in 2003, based on the 2000 Census. At that time, the districts were relatively equal in population. Since then, though, population shifts in the state have changed that.

Montana PSC Districts
The currrent Montana Public Service Commission districts would be redrawn under proposals submitted to a federal court this week.

According to the 2020 Census, Montana had 1,084,225 residents. That means the ideal districts would have a population one-fifth of that – around 216,845. However, District 1 – which includes Great Falls and northeastern Montana – has just 186,616 residents, while District 3 – which covers Bozeman, Butte and southwestern Montana – has 239,748. District 5 – which includes Flathead and Lewis and Clark, among other northern Montana counties – has 232,366 residents.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs said the vast differences in size between each district violate the U.S. Constitution and the guarantee of “one person, one vote.”

“In the absence of action by this Court, if the legislature does not act quickly to redistrict the PSC, the 2022 election will be held using unconstitutional maps,” they said.

The plaintiffs said the U.S. Supreme Court has previously established a test for whether state and local districts are properly apportioned: taking the largest and smallest district populations and determining what percentage off they are from the ideal district size. If those percentages add up to 10% or less, a map is likely acceptable. In this case, District 1’s population is almost 14% lower than the ideal, while District 3’s is 10% higher – making the total deviation more than 24%.

In his order, Molloy said it was “likely – though not certain – that Plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of their claims.” He said such a significant deviation between district sizes could magnify the value of votes in District 1 and reduce their value in District 3.

“Moreover, temporarily restraining the certification of candidates on the basis of the Commission’s present districts will indicate to potential candidates that the districting system is under review, which may allow them to assess the strategy of their prospective campaigns at the earliest possible juncture,” Molloy said.

So far, four people have announced plans to run for PSC in 2022: incumbent Republican Randy Pinocci in District 1 and Republicans Derek Skees and Joe Dooling and Democrat Kevin Hamm in District 5.

Candidate filing is set to open on Jan. 13, so the court’s decision after the Jan. 7 hearing is what will determine whether PSC candidates can file immediately.

Upper Seven Law, the firm representing the plaintiffs, declined to comment on active litigation at this time.

Current PSC District Populations, According to 2020 U.S. Census:
District 1: 186,616
District 2: 216,532
District 3: 239,748
District 4: 208,963
District 5: 232,366

Total Montana Population: 1,084,225
Ideal District Size: 216,845