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Politics

Colorado Secessionists Are Not Alone

Voters in 11 Colorado counties will decide Tuesday if they want to split from the state. But it's not just them—partition is hot these days.

Secessionists want to create the state of Jefferson by carving out land in Northern California and southern Oregon.(Via Wikimedia Commons)

photo of Alex Seitz-Wald
November 5, 2013

Voters in 11 conservative counties in Colorado will decide Tuesday if they want to try to break away from a state that they feel has grown too liberal. The partition movement has been largely treated as a sideshow in the state, especially since the counties would need approval from both the state Legislature and Congress—neither of which are likely—to escape Denver's 137-year-rule over their territory and become the 51st state. But the counties are hardly alone.

There have been dozens of state partition movements in American history, but they seemed to have picked up steam in recent years as the country has become more polarized. These movements, distinct from those endeavoring to separate from the union entirely, usually aim to join neighboring states whose politics or culture more neatly reflect their own, or to create a new state carved out of an existing one.

In Maryland, some tea-party activists from the western part of the state—which may have more in common with West Virginia and Pennsylvania than with Baltimore and Annapolis—want the five counties that make up the state's panhandle to break away. "We think we have irreconcilable differences, and we just want an amicable divorce," organizer Scott Strzelczyk said of his desire to leave the Old Line State.

 

California, meanwhile, with its vast size, complicated resource politics, and diverse population, has long been fertile ground for state partition movements. A group of northern counties have long wanted to join some counties in southern Oregon to form a new state called Jefferson. In 1941, residents even went so far as to elect a governor, and in 1965 the California state Senate gave the OK to partition the state (it never went beyond that though). In 1989, KSOR, the public-radio affiliate based at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, rebranded itself as Jefferson Public Radio.

Today, the Jefferson Declaration Committee has taken up the charge. "What we would like to do is gain representation for the northern people of the state," Mark Baird, spokesman for the group, told NPR, noting that urban areas dominate the state Legislature in Sacramento. "The only way to do that is to have our own state." In September of this year, boards in two California counties, Siskiyou and Modoc, voted in favor of secession from the Golden State. Today, a giant sign in Yreka, Calif.—his proposed interim capital of the new state—greets visitors to the "State of Jefferson."

In 1969, writer Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City on a platform that included making the city its own state and renaming everything north of the Big Apple Buffalo. More recently, Queens Council member Peter Vallone Jr. has offered several bills to split the city from ste state, including one in 2003 that attracted 20 cosponsors, out of 51 council members. "If not secession, somebody please tell me what other options we have if the state is going to continue to take billions from us and give us back pennies," Vallone asked in 2008.

Other urban areas like Chicago have entertained their own dreams of going it alone, while some rural legislators say good riddance to their metro regions. Likewise for Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which only became part of the state after an odd fluke of history known as the Toledo War.

Meanwhile, activists from the Tucson area want to "Free Baja Arizona" from the tyranny of Phoenix. The borders of the proposed new state are based roughly on the Gadsden Purchase, a swatch of land the U.S. annexed from Mexico in 1853. Baja Arizona has long been a "state of mind," more liberal and diverse than the rest of the state, and now they want to make it the real deal.

Michael Trinklein has written a whole a book about "lost states," as he calls them, which never made it to the flag. And The New Republic's Nate Cohn recently created a handy map of what the new 61 United States of America would look like if some of these partitionists got their way.

Of course, all of these movements are likely doomed to fail for myriad reasons, but especially because each new state would get two senators, thus upsetting the balance of power in Washington (plus, we'd need to make new flags).

To change that, we'd probably have to change the constitution—but why not? States are at war with themselves across the country thanks to capriciously draw borders that lump together people with opposing cultures and politics, but it need not be that way.

"It's like the Baskin-Robbins of states," says Strzelczyk, of the Maryland partitionists. "You can actually live in a political society that governs the way you want to be governed. The more choice the better."

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