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Disagreement over election integrity stymies special session

by AMY BETH HANSON
| February 22, 2022 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A disagreement among Montana Republicans over whether the Legislature should investigate the integrity of the state's elections has apparently undermined an effort to call a special session to establish new voting districts for choosing members of the state's utility regulation board.

Republican Rep. Derek Skees said Friday he did not gather enough signatures for a letter asking the governor to call a special session to address the Public Service Commission voting districts and to appoint an interim committee charged with "confirming the election integrity of Montana."

Lawmakers have for weeks been discussing holding a special session to set new district boundaries for the five-member commission after a federal judge ruled the populations of the districts vary so widely that they violate the Constitution's one person, one vote guarantee. The districts were last redrawn in 2003.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said Tuesday he would support a special session as long as the voting districts were the sole topic and if lawmakers had reached an agreement on a map they would approve.

GOP leaders have been unable to get a commitment from fellow Republicans to limit the special session to that single issue, Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt wrote to Republican legislators on Thursday.

During a January meeting, lawmakers nearly reached an agreement to have a single issue PSC maps special session, "but a senator walked out of the room over the issue of an election special committee and no agreement was reached," Blasdel and Galt wrote after Skees questioned what legislative leaders had done to gather support for creating a new PSC map. "At the same meeting, there was also no consensus on a PSC map."

Skees said he hopes lawmakers can still agree to hold a short special session to redraw the PSC voting districts.

"We just cannot let a federal judge draw a Montana election map," Skees said. He declined to say how many lawmakers supported his proposal.

Time is running short.

Federal judges have scheduled a bench trial on March 4 to create a new PSC map. Candidates can file for the two open PSC seats through March 14. A court order is preventing Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen from certifying candidates until there is a new map.

Skees has filed for one of the seats.

Montana's Legislature in 2013 killed a bill that would have redrawn the PSC districts to more evenly distribute the population based on the 2010 Census and create a law requiring the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee to evaluate the districts every 10 years when new Census results are available.