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Montana's shifting population: changes in congressional districts.

Montana's Shifting Population

Changes in Congressional Districts

At the Bureau's 1990 Economic Outlook Seminars, one participant made an interesting comment about Montana's population. A banker, he began his career in the state, left for fifteen years, and recently returned. He noted that the state's population had shifted during that time: "It seems like someone picked up the state at the eastern edge, and the population rolled from the eastern part of the state into the western part." This is an apt description of what has happened during the last twenty-five years.

Montana's Congressional districts clearly illustrate this trend. The federal government attempts to keep congressional representation roughly equal, with each U.S. representative representing about the same number of residents. Because of differences in population growth, the districts are periodically adjusted geographically so their populations remain roughly similar. As Montana's population growth has shifted to the western part of the state, Montana's eastern district has grown larger, geographically, to include enough residents to offset the western district's population increase. Dividing the state roughly in half in terms of population means dividing it geographically into thirds, with the eastern district encompassing about two-thirds of the counties and land area, and the western district the other third.

Typically, redistricting occurs one year to several years after the decennial census, depending on state laws and court orders. Recent redistricting for Montana occurred in 1965, 1971, and 1983. Each time, with relatively little fanfare, we've heard that the state's Congressional districts have remained roughly equal in population. Without looking at a map, it is easy to overlook the geographic population changes that precipitated the redistricting.

Figures 1, 2, and 3 clearly show the shift. The boundary between Montana's eastern and western Congressional districts has shifted steadily westward. Several counties along the Front Range of the Rockies are now in the eastern district instead of the western: Toole, Liberty, Pondera, Teton, and Meagher.

Two trends contributed to the shift. Montana's population growth rate peaked in the 1970s, and this growth occurred statewide. But far more western counties experienced high growth rates than was true in the eastern part of the state. Expansion in the wood products industry and other factors helped draw more people to western Montana. However, the state's economic slow-down brought that growth almost to a stand-still in the 1980s. In fact, the state actually lost population during some years of the decade, as residents left the state to find jobs. The population declines were more prevalent in the eastern part of the state.

Table 1 on page 24 shows the actual population figures. The table shows the state divided according to present Congressional districting (based on the 1980 Census). If the districts had been aligned in the 1960s as they are today, the eastern district would have had about 77,000 more residents than the west. In the 1970s, the eastern district would have been larger by over 33,000 residents. As of the 1983 districting, the districts were roughly equal, with 393,000 persons each. Some population growth continued in the western district during the 1980s, while the population remained stable in the eastern district. As of 1988 population estimates, the western district had 18,000 more residents than the eastern district.

The population shift, Montana's slow rate of population growth relative to the nation, and Montana's ranking among the states have caused some to suggest that Montana may lose one of its Congressional seats. The results of the 1990 Census will determine whether this happens. [Figures 1 to 3 Omitted]

Mary Lenihan is editor of the Montana Business Quarterly.
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Author:Lenihan, Mary L.
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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