State secession is almost as old as America itself. In 1792, Kentucky was allowed to seek statehood by its parent state of Virginia; in 1820, Maine was split off from Massachusetts. And of course, West Virginia was once a part of Virginia, although its path to statehood was far more contentious.
Historically, then, it’s not that unusual for states to transfer land into a new state. But it has been over 200 since the last time it happened with a state’s consent, and hundreds of proposals have since come and gone. But this failure hasn’t stopped organizers of two new secession proposals, both of which insist they have the popular support to justify it.
The first of these movements to pop up was in Illinois. Secession movements in Illinois are as old as the state – as far back as the 1840s, counties were openly passing referendums on rejoining Wisconsin or becoming a new state entirely. Cook County itself floated secession to become the “State of Chicago” in 1925, and now rural, conservative downstate would be more than happy to see that happen.
As downstate Illinois has become increasingly Republican, it has become culturally and politically alienated from the Chicago machine that dominates state politics. From abortion to gun control and crime to taxes, the differences in preference are stark. However, the population of Illinois mostly lies in and around the Democratic Chicago area. In recent years, downstate Republican legislators have proposed bills that would separate all of Cook County or just the city of Chicago into a new state, and now a secession movement has emerged to promote that goal. Supporters of “New Illinois” argue that separation would allow more representative governance for the geographically large downstate area; skeptics point out that the Chicago area provides much of the funding for downstate’s government services.
A mostly contiguous grouping of 23 red, rural counties have taken up ballot measures to consider secession, and it passed in all of them by wide margins of 20% or more. Organizers plan to run initiatives in even more counties in the coming years. It’s worth noting that the specific region these referendums have mostly covered so far is by far the most Republican portion of the state. It’s unclear how these referendums might fare in more competitive or Democratic-leaning downstate counties.
The more recent of the two movements comes from Oregon. The Beaver State is no stranger to secession proposals; the most famous of the bunch is the State of Jefferson, a proposal to join seven Oregon counties with over a dozen more from California. Jefferson supporters tried to make progress in 2016 on the California side, but the project itself went nowhere and failed on the ballot in three Republican counties (Del Norte, Lassen, and Siskiyou)
Now, Oregon seems to have moved on. The new proposal is for a “Greater Idaho”, which is more complicated than it sounds. The proposal would see the state of Idaho gain the rural, eastern counties of Oregon alongside a coastal strip, and with portions of northeastern California to boot. Exploratory referendums have been on the ballot in seven counties in Oregon and they’ve passed in each, but by surprisingly close margins. Deep red counties like Jefferson and Union only narrowly passed the proposal. This is especially stark given the contentious and ever-present political debate over cap-and-trade in Oregon, a proposal that eastern Oregon Republicans claim would devastate their economy.
It remains to be seen if future referendums will pass in the remaining Oregon counties, or if Idaho would even be interested in gaining the land – let alone if Oregon would sign off. Greater Idaho advocates have tried to pitch the idea to the rest of the state by noting that if they left, Oregon would be free of gridlock; it would be very easy to pass the progressive proposals favored by liberals in Portland or Eugene. But there doesn’t seem to be any real support from progressives for this plan.
It has been over 200 years since a state willingly allowed a portion of its land to become another state. That fact alone makes the prospect of future state splits highly unlikely. While rural and urban parts of states may have differences on policy, splitting up could have major economic consequences for both sides. And does any Governor want to be the one who split their state in two? That’s not a legacy most would look kindly on.
For better or worse, America’s state lines don’t appear to be shifting any time soon. Short of admitting DC or Puerto Rico as states or retroceding DC to Maryland, our state lines are fairly entrenched. While there’s no easy solution to bridge the divide between rural and urban America, secession doesn’t appear to be a serious or viable solution to the problem.