Six Californias? Well, Maybe Not.

[ Posted Thursday, July 17th, 2014 – 16:54 UTC ]

In two years, barring any unforeseen circumstances, the citizens of California will have the chance to vote on a new scheme to divide their state into not just two new states, but six. "California" as a political entity will cease to exist under this plan, but the name would be preserved in four of the new states (North California, as well as South, West, and Central Californias), while two of the new states will have entirely new names: Silicon Valley and Jefferson. But while it will be interesting to see what the voters think, the rest of the country should rest assured that this is not actually going to happen. It's a fun thought experiment, but nothing more.

There are multiple reasons why this madcap scheme will not come to fruition. The biggest is because the rest of the states simply would not allow such a massive power grab. The Senate would have to go from 100 members to 110 overnight, after all, which is not likely to happen even before the politics of the new senators are contemplated. The resentment from other states would likely be strong enough to prevent this plan from ever being approved in Congress (which it must be, according to the Constitution).

The politics would be somewhat murky. The Los Angeles area would be essentially split between two states, and driving across the Golden Gate Bridge would mean crossing from Silicon Valley into North California. Democrats have held both of California's Senate seats for over 20 years, and if the state remains whole they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If the state splits into six, the makeup of the new senators would be more balanced, but even if it split 6-to-6, this would be a net gain for Republicans. And the way the map is drawn, Republicans could even manage to get as many as 8 of the 12 new seats.

But that's not likely to garner much support outside the state from other Republicans -- a key point. Because if California can split up, what would stop Texas (or any other Republican-dominated state) from doing the same? Splitting up states is a popular idea in many regions, in fact. But it seldom actually happens, and hasn't since the Civil War (when West Virginia split from Virginia). The only other time this has ever happened in American history was even further back, as part of the Missouri Compromise (when Maine split off from Massachusetts).

California has considered splitting before, as various different division schemes were floated to the public. Logically, it would make a certain degree of sense. California is the biggest (by population) state in the country. Which means that one senator in California represents over 18 million people (half the state's population, in other words), while a Wyoming senator represents less than 300,000 people. That's a pretty wide disparity. It gets even wider when you look at the Electoral College -- California has over twice the number of electors of every other state but two (Texas and Florida). Since they all go for the state's winner in the presidential election, that leaves a lot of people whose votes just don't really matter.

Which is why splitting the state up is a subject that comes up every decade or so. There are two very obvious ways to split the state into two: geographically and demographically. The first would divide California with a line starting from approximately Santa Cruz or Monterey which would then run east to the Nevada border. North and South California would be roughly equal in size, geographically. North California would get San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento. South California would get Los Angeles, San Diego, and Bakersfield. Both would get a portion of the agricultural Central Valley, and most of the forests would go to the North while the deserts would go to the South. It makes sense both on a map and also population-wise, since it wouldn't be too lopsided a split.

But the second proposed split would make much more sense politically. Instead of bisecting the state on east-west lines, the state would split into two skinnier (but equally tall) new states, on a north-south axis. What this would essentially mean is splitting the coastal areas off from the interior. West California, in this scenario, would be a narrow strip along the coast, while East California would encompass the entire Central Valley and Imperial Valley. This split would be unequal in two ways -- it would give most of the land to East California, and it would give most of the people to West California. Even so, it might be more acceptable to the voters then splitting into North and South Californias. This is because most of the coast (not all, but most) is very liberal, while most of the interior (again, not all) is much more conservative. This way, East California would get national representation they are unable to achieve currently, and West California would get a state government without much Republican influence, which could then freely pass all sorts of liberal ideas into law.

While it's fun to play around with where to draw lines on a map, creating new states willy-nilly, it's worth pointing out that neither a north-south split or an east-west split has ever become more than a political pipe-dream. And splitting into two is a lot easier a concept to imagine actually happening than splitting into six. Which is why I can't even bring myself to be skeptical about the chances California will do so -- because to me it remains in the realm of "things that will never happen."

Of course, I may be selling the promoters short. Or "promoter," more accurately. Placing this state-splitting scheme on the ballot is the brainchild of one very wealthy Silicon Valley investor. He came up with the idea and he successfully bankrolled the signature-collecting effort. Who knows how much of his own money he'll pump into advertising? And it's hard to see who exactly will be collecting money to run ads against the idea, really. Even so, I think the complexities involved will be so overwhelming for the average voter to contemplate that I don't think even a well-funded ad campaign will gain much traction.

Make no mistake, the complexities are enormous. Just to begin with, how would the question of water rights be handled? That right there is enough to kill the idea. In national politics, while California would gain more prominence in the Senate, it might lose some in the House. If each of six new states had to be redistricted, it's a definite possibility that other states would qualify for some of our current representatives. California might pick up 10 senators, but might also lose 5 or 6 House members. Will the voters accept this tradeoff? Those are just two of the biggest issues, but there are hundreds more (the state university system, new state capitals, new state constitutions, property taxes... the list goes on).

And that's just within California. While I don't think the voters will accept the idea here, even if they did the rest of the country is just not going to allow five new states to spring into existence overnight. So while it will be an interesting political exercise, nothing will come of it in the end.

I don't fault the guy for trying, though. Heck, if I had more money lying around than I knew what to do with, I would probably finance some wild and crazy ballot initiatives myself. It sure would be fun to do so, and I have no shortage of wacky ideas I'd love to see implemented. If the economic effect of bankrolling such ideas was the equivalent of the price of a cup of coffee (proportionally) to an average person, there would be little to stop me from trying out a few notions on the voters myself. If the guy proposing six Californias had restrained himself a bit (by suggesting splitting into two or perhaps three new states), he might have had an actual chance of succeeding. But I don't believe for a moment that we're anywhere near adding five new stars to the United States flag. So while it'll be fun to watch it all play out, the other 49 states should rest assured that it's just not going to happen.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “Six Californias? Well, Maybe Not.”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    There are multiple reasons why this madcap scheme will not come to fruition.

    Indeed. One is that under Article IV section 3, it requires the consent of the state legislature (as well as of Congress), not a referendum.

    But it seldom actually happens, and hasn't since the Civil War (when West Virginia split from Virginia). The only other time this has ever happened in American history was even further back, as part of the Missouri Compromise (when Maine split off from Massachusetts)

    Not quite the only other time: Kentucky split from Virginia in 1792.

  2. [2] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Absolutely right, CW.

    The initiative is the ultimate in gerrymandering. Losing elections? Redraw the map to create your very own Senators and Representatives! Instead of addressing the inequalities of wealth distribution let the wealthy turn their enclaves into independent states, drawing even more on federal resources, while simultaneously reducing their contributions to local economies and populations, other than their own making the problem even worse.

    And you're absolutely right about issues involving water rights! That's been a major bone of contention for decades that would be orders of magnitude more contentious with six Californias. And is already going to be an increasingly difficult and important issue due to climate change.

    But the Senate alone is a deal breaker. With abuse of the filibuster and abuse of Senators nominating judicial candidates in vogue as a means of turning the Senate into a means of nullifying elections, repealing laws, and blackmailing the President, the Congress, and even the entire country at the whim of a handful of extremist Senators, instead of reforming the Senate increase its size ten percent?! Why would anyone outside, or even inside of California think that a good idea?

    Your quite right, CW, six California's will never happen.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Yeah, I suppose you can make a case for Kentucky (and Tennessee, for that matter). But that was the aftermath of the original 13 and the Northwest Territory claims, so I didn't count it. You could also make a case for huge territories splitting in order to qualify as states, but I discounted them as well (look at the original size of the Louisiana Purchase, for instance).

    But discounting all of that, it's only really happened twice, and both times slavery was at the heart of the deal. And it certainly hasn't happened in a long time, even though such movements pop up from time to time. Even in CA, a few counties voted on a measure to seceed from the state this year, for instance.

    The referendum is legally meaningless, you're right -- it would require the governor (I think, doing this from memory) to place the issue before the legislature, and also to send a plan to Congress for approval. Nothing more than a "sense of the people" sort of thing.

    LewDan -

    I've heard (but was too lazy to look it up) that the state water board actually has veto power over the state ever splitting up (maybe I just remembered that from Chinatown, not 100% sure). It wouldn't surprise me in the least.

    However, I have to compliment you on your first sentence: "The initiative is the ultimate in gerrymandering." That is truly brilliant, and I wish I had thought of it while writing this. You are correct: it would essentially be (if it happened) the first successful gerrymandering in the Senate. Just had to say that: well done!

    It jest ain't gonna happen. I seriously doubt it'll get even close to a majority to vote for it, even.


  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    "Six Californias" - One of the best team names at the Netroots chairman's trivia contest


    Chant: "Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five ... but six Californias"


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