The bipartisan Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission is kicking off the redistricting process. Their job -- making sure someone in Montana doesn't get a bigger piece of the political pie than you.
"It's a jigsaw puzzle, and we're supposed to come up with 100 main pieces," Democratic commission member Joe Lamson said. "That puts together the house districts."
These lines are only redrawn every decade, when new census data comes out. The political stakes are high and the effects, long-lived.
"This map is going to cover the next ten years of elections," Republican commission member Jon Bennion said.
Each district gets one representative in the state House. The Missoula County Office of Elections says you don't want one district to have significantly fewer voters than another, because that representative would have fewer voices in his ear.
"[That representative] may have more time to respond to his citizens," Missoula County Clerk Recorder and Treasurer Vickie Zeier said. "Whereas someone who has twice the size of a district, may have a more difficult time doing so."
Legally, every district is supposed to have roughly the same number of voters. But it isn't all simple arithmetic -- the process tends to get political. Democrats want to create swing districts, in which a mix of voters gives either party a chance in elections.
"Both the house and senate have gone back and forth between the two parties, and that probably is a pretty fair representation of where Montana actually is politically," Lamson said.
But Republicans say the creation of swing districts isn't in the commission's mandate, and that the Democrats are using their seats on the commission to gain political power.
"The Republicans on the commission don't feel like we have to look at political data and election results to try and rig elections," Bennion said.
Between now and 2013 the commission will work to agree on a plan for legislative approval. The new districts will go into effect for the 2014 election.
The commission will be taking public comments until a map is finalized. They say they've already heard from about 800 voters.