In a ruling that will likely increase Native American representation in the 2003 Montana Legislature, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Montana’s 1992 Redistricting Plan, which established the geographic boundaries for the 100 House of Representatives seats and 50 Senate seats, does not give Indians equal representation based on their population in the state.
The ruling stems from a 1998 lawsuit brought by 11 Indian plaintiffs against Secretary of State Mike Cooney and Gov. Marc Racicot, contending that the 1992 redistricting plan was adopted for discriminatory purposes in an effort to “dilute” the voting strength of Indians, a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. An earlier U.S. District Court ruling found that no vote dilution had taken place and that Indians were proportionally represented in the Legislature.
The Ninth Circuit Court’s reversal of that decision did not say that voter dilution took place or that Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission had adopted the 1992 plan for discriminatory purposes. It did say, however, that the plaintiffs had met the basic legal standards for proving vote dilution.
Central to this case was the question of whether whites usually vote as a bloc to defeat Indian candidates in districts where whites hold the majority. The lower court had ruled that Indian votes had not been diluted, and based that decision on the electoral success of Indian candidates in districts where Indians are the majority.
American Indians comprise approximately 6 percent of Montana’s total population, according to 1990 U.S. Census data. But the Indian population is relatively young and comprises only 4.8 percent of the state’s voting age population. The 1990 census revealed that American Indians comprised a majority of the voting age population in four of 100 House districts and one of 50 Senate districts.
“This is a very good opinion for Indian law, and indeed for voting law, because it would apply to any minority,” says Laughlin McDonald, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, who argued this case on behalf of the Indian plaintiffs. McDonald says that once this case is returned to district court, the state will need to remedy the situation, and predicts that Indians will pick up at least one more majority Indian seat in both the House and Senate.
Every 10 years, Montana assembles the Districting and Apportionment Commission to redraw district boundaries based on changes reflected in the U.S. Census data. That plan must be filed with the state Legislature. However, since the 2000 Census data will not be available until after the 2001 Legislature adjourns, some redistricting will likely be necessary before the 2002 elections.