Are three Californias better than one?
An initiative to break America’s most populous state into three smaller states gathered more than the required 402,468 signatures and earned the right this week to a spot on the Nov. 6 state election ballot. Californians will get to vote then on whether they want to break up after 168 years as a single state.
The last time America saw a new state carved out of an existing one was in 1863, when West Virginia was separated from Virginia in the midst of the Civil War. California was only 13 years old as a state at that time.
Now, after many failed attempts to consider splitting up the Golden State, voters will be faced with a proposal in November that would create states called Southern California (with 12 counties), Northern California (with 40 counties), and California (made up of Los Angeles County and the five counties north on the Central Coast).
Under the proposal, each of the new states would have about a third of the existing state population of nearly 40 million people.
If the “yes” vote wins, Congress will still have the final say under Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. And there, the idea will likely die.
Breaking up California has been the hobby of a Silicon Valley billionaire and cryptocurrency guru Tim Draper. Draper has tried twice before and failed, spending some $10 million so far in his quest over the past seven years.
Draper’s main complaint is that Los Angeles effectively runs California. He says that a “large number of elected representatives from a small part of our state” dominates decision-making.
Apparently Draper hasn’t heard the breaking news that California is a representative democracy where each resident gets one vote. So, yes, the 4 million people in the City of Los Angeles and the 10.2 million people in Los Angeles County get to elect more state legislators and members of the U.S. House than the residents of a small town of 10,000 people.
Other California activists are seeking to place a secession measure on the 2020 ballot – a move that would likely boost the voter turnout against President Trump and his political allies.
There are three hurdles to the plan to break up California.
The first is the voters themselves. Northern Californians complain about Southern Californians and don’t want to “give” them any of “their” water. Southern Californians – some two-thirds of the state – largely ignore the North. Elite coastal liberals are largely despised by the working-class inland residents.
And everybody hates Los Angeles – even most of the people who live there.
But that doesn’t mean Californians will vote to break up. It’s an ugly, co-dependent relationship – but it’s still a relationship.
Were the ballot proposition to pass, it would face two more obstacles.
First, state or federal courts would likely be asked to rule on whether the people, acting in their capacity as the state Legislature via a ballot initiative, meet the U.S. constitutional requirement set in Article IV, Section 3 requiring the “Consent of the Legislatures.” California legislators are unlikely to easily give approval to reduce their power.
Second, both houses of Congress would have to sign off on the deal. Here, both major political parties have items of concern.
Republicans would almost certainly see Democrats adding a net of at least two more U.S. senators to their count. No less than four of the six senators from three new California states would probably be Democrats, compared to two senators today.
But on the negative side for Democrats, one of the two new California states – Southern California – would tilt red. This would make the national Electoral College map more difficult for a Democratic candidate to win the presidency.
Further, at least 98 U.S. senators from the other 49 states would likely take a dim view of four more senators joining their deliberative body and thus diluting their own power.
California’s dominant Democrats, with well-heeled political consultants close by their side, are already looking to raise millions of dollars to defeat the state-splitting ballot measure.
There’s also the question of what kind of precedent the breakup of one state would set for the breakup of others. What’s to stop other states – especially those with big populations – from breaking up as well? Do we really need 80 or 100 states in our country, each its own governmental bodies and bureaucracies? Should a state be allowed to divide into many states to boost its representation in the U.S. Senate?
The main argument offered against the trisection of California is that it would cost billions of dollars and would mean, among other things, the specter of students paying out-of-state tuition for many of the state’s colleges and universities.
In addition, corporations – already under a heavy state and local tax and regulatory strain -- would suddenly be faced with a multiplication of bureaucratic hassles.
The truth is that breaking California into three states makes for interesting political theater, but after the ballots are cast in November, the only winners will be the consultants who worked on the “yes” and “no” campaigns.
And the thought of a breakup really happening is probably just a case of California Dreamin’.