Secession efforts, such as Tuesday's vote in 11 Colorado counties, often prevail at the local level but face formidable hurdles in winning approval from the state legislature and the US Congress.
Voters in 11 of Colorado’s 64 counties cast ballots Tuesday on whether they want to secede from the state – and they're not alone.
Two counties in northern California are preparing a petition to break off from that state in 2014. Maryland’s five conservative western counties are mounting an initiative to break away. And a split-off proposal for southern Florida has been attempted.
These efforts reflect not just residents' rising frustration with government in general, but also, more specifically, greater tension between rural conservative voters and more liberal city-dwellers, political analysts say.
In Colorado, the 11 northern counties are heavily Republican in a Democratic-controlled state. Locals opposed state efforts to tighten gun controls and to require that more energy come from renewable sources – a move, they said, that hit rural communities especially hard.
Will they break away? Not likely, say most analysts. Despite the local votes, which often succeed – as many predict Colorado’s votes on Tuesday will – the secession campaigns face giant hurdles in state legislatures and from the US Congress, both of which must approve. The language is spelled out in the US Constitution, Article 4, Section 3:
“New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states 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 of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.”
If any of the current campaigns gets past this hurdle, they will be the first since 1863, when West Virginia was created during the Civil War.
“These efforts are always percolating, but not realistic. They are more common today because we see more like-minded people feeling that they can’t control their political environment,” says Prof. John McGlennon, chairman of government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “Nowadays, it is rural white voters who are at odds with their increasingly urban states. But the obstacles to secession are nearly insurmountable.”
While some rural voters may be happy, in theory, to be free from policies determined by urban/suburban politicians, it is often the poorest regions of states that want to secede, he says. “Who will pay for their roads, their schools, and other services which are subsidized by the metro areas?” Professor McGlennon adds.
"It is hard to imagine both the state legislatures and Congress approving such divisions, given the implications for state and national politics. Would suburban Republicans in Colorado want to cleave off a large chunk of the vote [that] a GOP candidate for governor would need to win? Would state or national Democrats be anxious to create a new state almost certain to send an all-Republican delegation to Congress?”
The US has seen scores of secessionist attempts over the years. Here is a partial list of what has come up recently:
While analysts say the current spate of secession attempts have little chance of success, the measures are nonetheless being watched for the margins they win by – which could be a signal to state legislatures that they ought to consider the measures. That's how Michigan gained a northern peninsula, once Wisconsin; how Indiana picked up a lake front, and how Utah gave up its upper right corner to Wyoming.
“Utah was taking its time coming into the Union over Congress’s insistence that the state renounce polygamy, and Wyoming took advantage of the moment,” says David Mark, editor-in-chief of Politix. “Nebraska also lost a chunk of itself to Colorado. So it does happen.”