In my last column, I began analyzing a recent plan by Silicon Valley billionaire investor Tim Draper to break up California into three separate states stemming from his view that “California’s diverse population and economies [have] rendered the state nearly ungovernable.” This new plan apparently replaces a scheme that Draper unsuccessfully tried to qualify for the California ballot a few years ago that sought to carve up the Golden State into six separate states.
The newly proposed measure filed with the California Secretary of State last month seeks to create the following three new states out of what is currently California: (1) “Northern California” (consisting essentially of the San Francisco Bay Area counties, the counties extending eastward from the Bay Area to the Nevada border, and everything north of that line to the Oregon border); (2) “California” (consisting of the coastal counties from Monterey to Los Angeles, inclusive); and (3) “Southern California” (consisting of Orange and San Diego Counties, the Inland Empire, and the vast majority of the Central Valley.)
As I noted in my column two weeks ago, each of these three new states would contain more than 10 million people, making each of the three still among the ten biggest (in terms of population) in the resulting nation of 52 states (a powerful reminder of Mr. Draper’s point about how large California has become.)
Like his original plan to divide California up into six states, the three-Californias concept faces legal hurdles, some of which I discussed two weeks ago. In the space below, I explore some of the political reasons Mr. Draper’s newest idea is unlikely to succeed, even if he is able to gather the requisite number of signatures to place the measure on the ballot. (With enough money, virtually any initiative proponent can surpass the signature threshold and place a measure before the voters.)
The Political Economies of Separation
While it may be true that California (like the nation and like many other states) has endured problems in self-governance over the last few decades, whether Californians are ready to make such a radical change as to carve up the state is far from clear. There is, to be sure, tension between different parts of California—the communities that make up the large and densely populated metropolitan areas on or near the coast have very different demographic, economic, cultural, and political characters than do the less-populous but geographically expansive communities located to the east and far north of the state. And there are rivalries between the Bay Area/Silicon Valley region, on the one hand, and the sprawling Southern California, Los Angeles-based, region on the other. There are some Northern Californians who might want to disassociate from Los Angeles (although they would likely be reluctant to cede the name “California” to a new state based in LA—a naming gaffe that would likely need to be fixed if Draper’s idea gains traction), and vice versa.
But there are also important centripetal forces at work here. Many, many families are spread—and linked—throughout the state. Various parts of the state have deep economic ties with, and reliance on, other parts. College students from all over the state relish the ability to be treated as in-staters for purposes of admissions and tuition at all the University of California and California State University campuses. Water rights, projects, and policies (hugely important in the western half of the nation) are currently integrated throughout the state. So dividing California up into three separate full-blown states would pose very complicated economic and public policy challenges.
I should acknowledge here that the three-Californias proposal is better crafted (putting aside some typographical glitches I mentioned in the last column and the ill-advised conferral of the unqualified name “California” to any of the three new states) in these regards than was the six-Californias idea. One big problem with the six-Californias plan was that two of the six newly envisioned states (the State of “Jefferson” between Sacramento and Oregon and the State of “Central California” in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada mountain range) would have had trouble surviving economically once decoupled from the more thriving coastal areas. These two proposed states, if created, might very well have lacked the resources needed to educate their children or to maintain their infrastructures. (There is but one University of California campus—the promising but still very young UC Merced—and a few California State University campuses located in these two new proposed states.)
By contrast, each of the three new proposed states (“Northern California,” “California,” and “Southern California”) in Draper’s current proposal contains a mix of coastal and inland areas, a mix of urban and rural regions, and a mix of economically thriving and economically challenged areas. So each of the three new states could plausibly thrive independent of the other two.
The Federalism and Partisan Implications of Separation
Still, the political hurdles seem daunting. For starters, remember that the measure would have to win support both in California and in Washington, DC, because the creation of new states requires, under Article IV of the federal Constitution, the consent of the legislatures of the involved states and the consent of Congress.
Let’s start with congressional approval. There at least two axes on which one might imagine opposition in Congress—interstate federalism and partisan advantage. As to interstate federalism, some states (and their representatives in DC) might be reluctant to reduce their current relative voice in the federal government (especially in the Senate), a consequence that would result from increasing California’s share in the Senate from 2% (2 out of 100) to 6% (6 out of 104, because three states new states would mean replacing California’s two existing senators with six new ones pursuant to the federal Constitution’s command that the “Senate shall be composed of two Senators from each State.”) Getting low-population states—that currently enjoy the fact that they have equal say with more populous states in the Senate—to effectively dilute their share of congressional clout might be difficult.
Yet it may be that some members of Congress, when considering a measure like Draper’s, may be moved more by political-party considerations than by the influence their states wield in DC. Indeed, some analysts have argued that partisan considerations, more than other factors, have driven earlier episodes in American history in which new states have been added. If that was, and remains, true (and today it does seem that political party is often the single most important factor in predicting political behavior), we need focus carefully on the partisan consequences of Draper’s current plan.
Under the lines Draper proposes, of the six senators who would come from the three new Californias, four senators (the two each from “California” and “Northern California”) would almost certainly be Democrats, and the partisan identity of the other two (from “Southern California”) would be harder to predict. The counties that make up “Southern California” sometimes lean Republican (and collectively voted almost evenly for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012), but did favor Democratic Senate candidate (now Senator) Kamala Harris over more liberal Republican opponent Loretta Sanchez in the most recent election for a senator in California. But query whether Republicans would have put up someone more competitive for the Senate race had they known they were competing only in the “Southern California” counties; since Harris had overwhelming support in the “Northern California” and “California” counties, it was hard to recruit plausible Republican opponents against Harris in a statewide race in what is currently California.
So the Senate implications are hard to predict. It is quite possible that the adoption of Draper’s three-Californias idea would (generally and for the foreseeable future) lead to the election of four Democratic and two Republican senators, preserving California’s current +2 (2-0) edge for Democrats in the Senate.
But the implications that are easier to predict, and that would likely pose a deal breaker among Democrats—both in California and in DC (to the extent Democratic support in DC were needed)—arise with respect to presidential elections. Right now, Democrats can count on California to deliver a 55-0 electoral college bloc in their favor. (Remember that virtually all states—quite rationally—deliver their entire electoral college allotment in winner-take-all way to a single candidate). And the newly created states of “Northern California” and “California”—containing the Bay Area, and Los Angeles, respectively— could continue to be counted on to deliver for Democratic candidates their 41 or so (combined) electors.
But—and this is the crucial point—because the newly created “Southern California” state could easily vote for a Republican presidential candidate (as noted above, Mitt Romney nearly beat Barack Obama in 2012 in this region) and give its 18 or so electors to a Republican, then Democrats would run a serious risk moving from a 55-0 advantage in California to something like 41-18 (a total of 59, because the creation of two additional states would increase the electoral college denominator by four, and every state gets two electors on account of having two senators), a net advantage of only 23, less than half of the 55-electoral-vote edge the Dems currently enjoy.
Even if Democrats could hope to win “Southern California” from time to time and over time, Democrat leaders—both in California and in DC—will be very reluctant to run the risk that inheres in Mr. Draper’s proposal. And risk aversion looms large in these matters, which helps explain why no new states have been added to the United States in over 50 years, and no new state has been created out of an existing state for more than 150 years (when West Virginia was created out of territory wholly located in Virginia.)
So I think Mr. Draper’s plan—given the current electoral and partisan landscape—would have a tough time winning over Democrats, who seem to dominate California elections.
But what if that electoral landscape changed? In particular, consider the National Popular Vote plan, about which I have written extensively, including for this site just a few months ago. If this plan were adopted by a sufficient number of states, such that the national presidential vote-winning candidate were virtually guaranteed to obtain a majority of electoral college electors and become president, then Democratic partisan concerns about Mr. Draper’s plan would be significantly alleviated. Indeed, because in the Senate they might actually gain on their 2-0 current Senate advantage, Democrats could be sympathetic to Draper’s proposal. (Of course, Republicans in DC would then have to be convinced they wouldn’t likely lose ground in the Senate.)
The upshot, then, is that if Mr. Draper is genuinely interested in getting Democrats to give his three-Californias plan a fair assessment on the merits, he should be providing resources and advocating for the National Popular Vote plan, to get it over the top.