A century after California’s Progressives enacted the initiative, referendum, and recall as bulwarks against moneyed interests, direct democracy has largely become a rich man’s plaything. Tom Steyer, the Silicon Valley hedge-fund manager now famous for his environmental activism and support of liberal political causes, spent nearly $30 million in 2012 for a measure to raise taxes on out-of-state businesses and put the money toward alternative energy. (It passed.) George Joseph, chairman of Mercury Insurance, dropped almost $17 million on an initiative to cut regulations in the auto-insurance industry. (It failed.) Chris Kelly, a former Facebook executive, spent over $2 million—a comparative pittance—for a measure cracking down on human trafficking. (It passed.)
But none of those efforts was nearly as dramatic as the one currently being advanced by Tim Draper, a wealthy Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former member of the California State Board of Education. Draper doesn’t just want to mend California. He wants to end it.
Draper needs to gather more than 807,000 signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that would divide California’s existing counties into six new states. California’s fairly rural northernmost sector—which has flirted with the idea of forming a new state with parts of southern Oregon in the past—would become the state of Jefferson. The contiguous area to the south (including Sacramento, Napa, and Santa Rosa) would become North California. Unsurprisingly, the most economically dynamic part of the Northern California coast—including the San Francisco Bay Area and San Jose —would evolve into the nation’s wealthiest state, Silicon Valley. Directly to the east, by contrast, would be the nation’s poorest state, Central California, consisting of the farmlands of the Central Valley and cities including Stockton, Fresno, and Modesto. Southern California would be divided into two states, with West California becoming the new home of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, while South California would gather together Orange County, San Diego, and the vast Inland Empire.
Why such drastic measures? To hear Draper tell it, no reasonable alternative exists. California is “nearly ungovernable,” Draper’s initiative declares, pointing to the state’s enormous size, huge population, and demographic diversity. Elsewhere, he’s cited the depressing facts with which the state’s citizens have become familiar: the oppressive business, regulatory, and tax climates; the dismal performance of public education; and the decay of public infrastructure.
Though many of Draper’s criticisms have merit, his broader indictment of the state as “ungovernable” — a fashionable cliché among those concerned with reforming state government—doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Texas, for example, is physically larger than the Golden State and is its closest rival for population size; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it has an identical proportion of Hispanic residents (38.2 percent). Yet no one is declaring Texas—one of the nation’s great economic success stories in recent years—irredeemably flawed. California is certainly badly governed, but that doesn’t mean that it’s ungovernable.
With the quick-fix optimism one might expect from a Silicon Valley denizen, Draper argues that breaking up California into six smaller states would create competitive pressures that will force each new jurisdiction to contend for citizens and businesses. That might be true at the margins, but the state already faces those pressures; witness the outflow of citizens and corporations to states such as Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. Competition guarantees consequences for failure. It does not ensure reform.
Draper also fails to reckon with the costs of carving up the state. Overnight, millions of Californians would find themselves living in one state and working or attending school in another. California’s always-contentious battles over water rights would likely reach a breaking point as they became interstate disputes. Quarrels would no doubt emerge over the distribution of the state’s enormous debt burden (Draper’s measure calls for it to be divided up according to population). And he downplays the unique challenge posed by trying to create six new polities: It’s conceivable that the population of one of the proposed states could vote against the measure, yet still be forced to separate based on the votes of the rest of the state—creating the novel problem of involuntary secession.
Even were the initiative to pass at the state level, the United States Constitution erects a virtual Mt. Everest for Draper’s plan to scale. Article IV, Section 3 declares: “No new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State, nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures concerned as well as of the Congress.” Only two other actions under the Constitution—state requests for national military assistance “against domestic Violence” and the passage of constitutional amendments—require agreement by both the states and the federal government. Clearly, the Framers wanted such processes to be exceedingly difficult.
Congress and the states have rarely agreed to let a single state engage in constitutional mitosis. It has happened just five times in American history, the last time 150 years ago. The first four instances—Vermont splitting off from New York in 1791; Kentucky separating from Virginia in 1792; Tennessee being carved out of North Carolina in 1796; and Maine cleaving away from Massachusetts in 1820—represented divisions of vast territories without long political histories. More controversially, West Virginia declared its independence from Virginia during the Civil War, when Virginia had seceded from the union and a government-in-exile consented to the division. None of these cases offers an easy analogue to Draper’s California proposal.
Even should Draper succeed in getting his amendment on the ballot, and even if voters passed the measure, two factors suggest that it wouldn’t succeed. First, states with small populations would likely seek to block the effort in Congress. The Dakotas, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Vermont, and Wyoming, for example, each have only one member in the House of Representatives. They depend on their representation in the Senate to protect their interests—representation that would be diluted with the addition of 10 senators from the new states formed out of California.
Second, California’s Democratic-controlled state legislature would almost certainly oppose the division because of its partisan implications. Right now, California’s 55 Electoral College votes—the most in the nation—are all but guaranteed to the Democratic presidential candidate. Analysis by the Hoover Institution’s Carson Bruno, however, suggests that only two of the six proposed new states—Silicon Valley and West California—would be reliable sources of Democratic votes in presidential elections. Approving partition could take away Democratic candidates’ biggest electoral asset in their pursuit of the White House.
Of course, Draper may fail to get his measure on this fall’s ballot. He’s already floated the prospect of delaying it until 2016. But California’s myriad problems—from education and taxes to infrastructure and regulation—demand immediate attention. The state doesn’t have the luxury of wasting any more time on quixotic proposals.