HELENA — Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen submitted the state’s proposed new Public Service Commission electoral districts this week, in response to a lawsuit claiming the current districts are unconstitutional — but said it shouldn’t be adopted.
While filing her court-ordered map, the state’s chief election officer said the lawsuit should be dismissed, and that the Legislature – not federal judges – should draw the PSC’s five electoral district boundaries.
A panel of three federal judges so far has declined requests to dismiss the lawsuit, setting a March 4 trial at which it could decide whether to set the district boundaries for the 2022 election. The panel has indicated it agrees that the current districts are unconstitutional because their populations have grown wildly unequal.
Jacobsen’s map made minimal changes to the districts, moving just three counties.
It added Glacier and Musselshell counties to District 1, which stretches across north-central and northeast Montana, and added Deer Lodge County to District 4, in western Montana.
However, her changes still left District 1 about 5.5% below the optimum population level and left southwest Montana’s District 3 about 4% above the optimum level.
Those suing to redraw the PSC districts submitted three proposed maps to the court two weeks ago.
Those maps made more changes to the districts but created district populations that are no more than 1.5% above or below the equitable population benchmark of 216,800 people.
The plaintiffs — former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown and Gallatin County residents Hailey Sinoff and Don Seifert — filed suit late last year, saying the five PSC districts have become unconstitutional because their populations are nowhere close to equal.
The PSC regulates electric, natural gas, water, and other utilities in Montana and has five members elected by district. The district boundaries haven’t been redrawn since 2003. District 3, which includes fast-growing Bozeman, and District 5, which includes Kalispell and Helena, now have populations that are 10.5% and 7% higher, respectively than an equitable amount.
District 1’s population is now 14% below the equitable amount. District 4, which includes Missoula and five other western Montana counties, is 3.4% below an equitable population, and District 2, which includes Billings and southeast Montana, has about the correct population.
Jacobsen’s filing in court this week criticized the plaintiffs’ proposed maps, saying they unnecessarily move too many counties to achieve the goal of more equal population among the districts and also split some counties, rather than drawing the districts along county boundaries.