You’ve got Oregonians seeking to cascade into Idaho, Virginians who identify as West Virginians, Illinoians fighting to escape Chicago, Californians dreaming of starting a 51st state, and New Yorkers who think three states are better than one.
Separation fever is sweeping the nation as quixotic but tenacious bands of frustrated rural dwellers, suburbanites and conservatives seek to break free from states with legislatures increasingly controlled by liberal big cities and metropolitan strongholds.
“Oregon is controlled by the northwest portion of the state, Portland to Eugene. That’s urban land, and their decisions are not really representing rural Oregon,” said Mike McCarter, president of Move Oregon’s Border for a Greater Idaho. “They have their agenda and they’re moving forward with it, and they’re not listening to us.”
In Virginia, the newly elected Democratic majority’s progressive legislation on issues such as gun rights has spurred “Vexit,” or “Virginia exit,” a campaign to merge right-tilting rural counties into neighboring West Virginia that organizers say has the potential to catch fire nationwide.
“To be honest, if this works — you’ve got a lot of red areas in this country that are totally dominated by a blue metropolis,” said Vexit2020 leader Rick Boyer, a former member of the Campbell County Board of Supervisors. “If it works in Virginia, there’s no reason it can’t reshape the political map.”
Such campaigns can only be described longshots — no state has split off since West Virginia was carved from Virginia in 1863 — but the growing interest comes as those living outside cities wrestle with the consequences of the 1964 Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims.
The ruling established the principle of “one man, one vote,” effectively eliminating state legislative districts apportioned by county or geography instead of population, which hobbled in the influence of smaller and rural communities.
Illinois state Rep. Brad Halbrook, who has introduced a resolution to spin off Chicago and declare it the 51st state, said that “downstate voices are simply not being heard because we’ve been forced into this democracy that’s concentrated power into a small geographical area of the state.”
“Sen. Everett Dirksen said that with Reynolds v. Sims, the major metropolitan areas, the large population centers, are going to control the rest of the state, and that’s what’s happened with Illinois, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, New York,” the Republican Halbrook said.
He acknowledged that the bill isn’t going anywhere without a popular uprising, and that’s where G.H. Merritt comes in. She heads New Illinois, a grassroots nonprofit seeking to kick Chicago out of Illinois using the Article IV process, which requires the consent of the legislature and Congress.
“We have operations in 49 of 102 counties,” Ms. Merritt said. “We kind of compare it to the way Solidarity worked in Poland, where the people just decided they were done and transitioned from a communist government to a democracy without having a civil war.”
Hers isn’t the only secession group in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois Separation has taken a different route with county ballot referendums that instruct local officials to “correspond” with Cook County about “the possibility of separating from the City of Chicago.”
So far the group has qualified three measures for the March 17 primary ballot and nine for the Nov. 3 general election, according to a spokesperson.
In New York, Divide New York State has for years championed the idea of three autonomous self-governing regions, eliminating the need for Congress to create separate states. More ambitious is New California, which seeks to create a 51st state, and Calexit, which wants to make California its own nation.
In Oregon, three counties have agreed to place a measure on the ballot instructing local officials to begin negotiations to “relocate the Oregon/Idaho border to make this county a county of Idaho,” described as a border readjustment and not secession.
“This proposal is different from secession because it is simply a shift in borders that does not affect the balance of power in the US Senate,” said the Greater Idaho’s petition. “It does not create a new state or increase the number of states.”
So far several Oregon Republicans have endorsed the idea, including Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, who said in an email to CNN that he would “welcome the idea to serve on the Greater Idaho legislature!”
Also on board is Idaho Gov. Brad Little.
“They’d like to have a little more autonomy and a little more control and a little more freedom, and I fully understand that,” the Republican governor told “Fox & Friends.”
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has put out the welcome mat, and a state concurrent resolution inviting Virginia counties to cross over recently cleared a House committee and enjoys “overwhelming support,” said its sponsor, Republican state Rep. Gary Howell.
“The big difference is this is the first time another state has made the offer to take them. That’s never happened,” said Mr. Howell, adding, “There’s been very little pushback. The resolution I like to say has tri-partisan support because not only does it have Republicans and Democrats, it also has our lone independent on it.”
So far, however, blue states have shown little interest in parting with their taxpayers or electoral votes. Gov. Ralph Northam’s spokeswoman has dismissed the hubbub as election-year politics, while Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last year that “I don’t have any concerns of any secession effort actually taking hold.”
The idea fell flat at a recent meeting of the Tazewell County [Virginia] Board of Supervisors, said chairman Charles Stacy, who added that the board “caught hell” in the media for even discussing the proposal.
“There were a few citizens that showed up that thought that was a good idea, but it overwhelmingly had zero support from anybody in the government of Tazewell County,” Mr. Stacy said. “The reality of it is, something like that is not even within the purview of the Board of Supervisors. That would be a legislative function between the two states to change their territories.”
Adam W. Dean, history professor at the University of Lynchburg, said the idea of moving Virginia counties to West Virginia is legal under Article IV, Section III of the U.S. Constitution, but gaining the approval of both state legislatures and Congress would be “extremely unlikely.”
While West Virginia did split from Virginia during the Civil War, Mr. Dean said the move was “legally dubious at the time and only approved because of the exigency of civil war.”
Instead of trying to rearrange state borders or form a new state, foes argue that disaffected residents should simply try to win back the state legislature, but Mr. Boyer said that in states like Virginia with growing urban population centers, it’s a losing battle.
“The demographics in Virginia are not good,” Mr. Boyer said. “The federal government employee base is more and more of our voting population in Virginia every year. Northern Virginia is more and more dominant every year, and the giant rest of red Virginia is overwhelmed by blue Northern Virginia. It’s a losing demographic war as Virginia is currently constituted.”
West Virginia’s Howell argued that liberal state Democratic legislators in Virginia should seize the opportunity to unload their “deplorables.”
“If they get rid of the ones that are supposedly their problem, they could have a super-majority with what’s left in their legislature,” Mr. Howell said. “So they could pass the liberal utopia that they want.”
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