Montana Republicans pass bill to gerrymander the same state Supreme Court that could rule on new GOP voting laws

Montana Republicans pass bill to gerrymander the same state Supreme Court that could rule on new GOP voting laws

Then-Congressman Greg Gianforte listens to Lolo Incident Command staff and leaders from the many interagency and departmental partners, talk about the Lolo Peak fire to include, strategy, tactics and implementation on actions taken, and the local impacts to communities, in Montana, on August 24, 2017, near Missoula, MT. The Secretaries traveled to Montana for a first hand look at a situation briefing of the wildland fires in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

After winning total control over state government in 2020 for the first time in 16 years, Montana Republicans have orchestrated an all-out assault on voting rights, democracy, and the rule of law that culminated in late April with GOP legislators voting to put a statutory measure on the November 2022 ballot that would effectively gerrymander Montana's Supreme Court to cement a future GOP majority if approved by voters next year.

The GOP's bill would replace the current system of using statewide elections to elect Supreme Court justices with using districts drawn by GOP legislators and redistricted by lawmakers every 10 years thereafter. According to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, the GOP's proposed 2020s court districts could have seen Republican candidates lose the statewide vote by 7 points yet still carry a majority of seats last year. Republicans would thus likely be favored in a 5-2 majority of seats, whereas the court currently lacks a secure majority for either party and has seen the all-important swing justices side with Democrats in some recent major cases.

Republicans' attempt to gerrymander the state Supreme Court is especially notable because GOP lawmakers have also recently passed new voting restriction laws that immediately sparked a Democratic lawsuit arguing that they violate Montana's constitution, which the justices could eventually decide. The GOP's newly adopted laws include two that eliminated Election Day voter registration and adopted stricter voter ID requirements that limit student IDs in particular, while the GOP passed a third measure in the legislature in the final week of April that would revive a restriction on who may turn in someone else's mail ballot, something a court had struck down last year for discriminating against Native American voters.

Gerrymandering isn't the only tool that Republicans are using to try to take over the courts in Montana, and Republicans also recently passed a law that eliminated Montana's judicial nominating commission to give GOP Gov. Greg Gianforte free rein to appoint more partisan judges directly to the bench instead of having to choose from a list of potential nominees that commissioners screened based on supposed merit. The eliminated process was supposed to insulate the courts from the pressures of partisan politics, and its repeal has also drawn a lawsuit.

After heavily targeting voters and the judicial branch, Montana Republicans turned their sights to the legislative branches on Tuesday when they rushed a separate bill through the legislature to impose additional criteria on Montana's bipartisan redistricting commission, prioritizing criteria that favor Republicans such as compactness over other factors that don't and prohibiting commissioners from intentionally using partisan data to ensure fairness. Just like all of the above power grabs Republicans that have advanced, this bill too is likely to face a lawsuit as soon as Gianforte signs it, since the commission was created by a 1972 constitutional amendment and previous GOP attempts to shackle it by statute have been struck down.

Completing the GOP's attempts to entrench their power over the legislative and judicial branches and by limiting the electorate, Republicans lastly passed legislation for Gianforte to sign that aims to ward off future progressive ballot measures. That bill bans citizens from using ballot initiatives to expand eligibility for government programs after voters narrowly failed to pass a measure to expand Medicaid in 2018 and prohibits initiatives from appropriating revenue anywhere besides the state's general fund after a voter-approved 2020 marijuana legalization measure dedicated the resulting tax revenue to land conservation efforts.

The ballot measure restrictions would also insert warnings on the petitions that voters must sign to qualify initiatives for the ballot whenever the proposal would supposedly hurt businesses. The bill would grant lawmakers the power to vote on whether or not they approve of proposed ballot initiatives before supporters could begin gathering signatures, the results of which votes would also be included on petition-signature forms, meaning the GOP legislature would be able to put its thumb on the scale in ways that initiative proponents simply couldn't.

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