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A panel of three federal judges granted a preliminary injunction Thursday that prevents the Montana Secretary of State from certifying candidates for the upcoming Public Service Commission races.

The injunction is the result of a lawsuit filed in December that said data from the 2020 U.S. Census showed that the populations of the five Montana Public Service Commission districts significantly deviated from one another, causing votes from each district to not be equal.

The largest population deviation of 25% is between districts 1 and 3, well beyond the 10% maximum deviation allowed in the “one person, one vote” rule within the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The judges said in the injunction that if the 2022 election cycle continues using the current districts, voters from districts 1 and 5 — which has a population deviation of 21% — will not have their votes counted “with substantially the same degree of weight as other votes.”

The ideal population for each district is 216,845 people per district, according to court documents.

Incumbent Republican Randy Pinnoci filed for reelection for district 1, while Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, filed to run for district 5 on Thursday. Both candidates filing statuses are listed as “pending” on the Montana Secretary of State’s website.

The judges have created an expedited schedule because of the looming March 14 deadline for candidate filing, with the intent that the lawsuit is resolved before then.

Former Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert, former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown and Gallatin County resident Hailey Sinoff filed the lawsuit against Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. The suit requests that the districts be redrawn by the panel of judges before the 2022 elections, rather than the Montana Legislature.

Court documents say Jacobsen who argued at a Jan. 7 hearing that the Montana Legislature has not had time to respond to the 2020 U.S. Census Data, which was released in August.

She provided “ample evidence” that legislators would take a crack at redistricting in the form of a letter and email — sent by Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, and Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson — she received after the lawsuit was filed.

The judges said that the email and letter may indicate future action, but have no play in the current lawsuit. The essential issue was whether the Legislature or the judiciary should handle redrawing the districts.

The Legislature has had numerous chances to handle redistricting, but no change has been made since 2003. That nearly two decade old map, which was drawn using data from the 2000 U.S. Census, is still being used.

The judges said that the Montana Legislature has “consistently failed” to redraw the districts, and that there is no mechanism in the Montana Constitution that compels them to do so.

Jacobsen’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Constance Van Kley, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said that she and her clients are preparing a motion for summary judgement that is due on Feb. 7.

“With this order, and the court’s recent scheduling order, it has made it possible for our clients to accomplish their goals,” Van Kley said.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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