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State-Level Secession Movements in the United States: Northern Colorado and Jefferson

Submitted by on October 9, 2013 – 11:48 am 30 Comments |  
State of Northern Colorado MapThe intense political polarization of the United States is most clearly reflected by the dysfunctional nature of the federal government. At a more local scale, it is seen as well in the growing movement to create new states by splitting existing ones. Most of these cases involve the desire of people in rural, conservative counties to secede from the more liberal states in which they are currently located. A front-page story in the October 7 edition of the New York Times, for example, highlights a drive to devise a new state of “Northern Colorado.” Eleven Colorado counties will vote on a secession measure this November. As the Times article specifies, the move for separation was prompted by gun-control measures passed with support from the more metropolitan parts of the state. Other issues also play a role, as local voters are reportedly disturbed by “marijuana shops, green energy policies and steps to embrace gay marriage and illegal immigrants.”

A number of geopolitical challenges, however, stand in the way of the movement to create new US states, and it is not clear if secession is a realistic possibility even if local voters strongly endorse it. Although the U.S. Constitution allows the formation of new states, territory cannot be taken from an existing state without the consent of both the federal government and the state in question. Such approval would be difficult to obtain, as any new state would automatically send two new senators to Washington D.C., upsetting the country’s political balance. Not surprisingly, no actual instance of state division has occurred since the pro-union counties of Virginia split off to form West Virginia at the height of the Civil War.

51st State  Initiative MapThe would-be state of Northern Colorado has its own particular problems as well. As the New York Times map indicates, the eleven counties voting on the measure this November are not contiguous, which would make any state that they would form a clumsy, two-part polity. With a population of only around 376,000, this new state would also be the least populous member of the union by a wide margin, with 200,000 fewer residents than 50th-place Wyoming. Most of this meager population, moreover, is concentrated in Weld Country, home to some 263,000 persons. Although Weld is the leader of the secession movement, it is also the most liberal of the disgruntled Colorado counties, having given Barack Obama 42 percent of its votes in 2012. (Intriguingly, Weld County’s main city, Greeley, played a minor role in the growth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by virtue of its liberality; Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s leading intellectual founder, considered Greeley’s church-sponsored dances in 1949 to be such “hotbeds of debauchery” that he turned passionately to the “Shade of the Quran” [the title of one of his main works]).

Although the eleven Colorado counties that are voting on secession this November would make a sparsely settled, discontiguous state, the movement’s backers have more ambitious plans. As the map taken from their website (“The 51st State Initiative”) shows, they also hope that a number of additional counties will join the cause. At its maximum extent, “Northern Colorado” would actually be more accurately described as “Peripheral Colorado,” excluding only the greater Denver metropolitan area along with a few sparsely populated Rocky Mountain counties noted for their ski resorts and affluent populations. Some of the counties marked for potential inclusion, however, make little political sense; heavily Hispanic Costilla County, for example, gave a higher proportion of its votes (73%) to Barack Obama in 2012 than did Boulder County (70%), the left-leaning home of the University of Colorado. The would-be state would also potentially reach into western Kansas and Nebraska; here the desire for secession is less clear, as both states are relatively rural and reliably conservative on most hot-button issues. For the core secessionist counties, other options are also being considered if the formation of a new state proves impossible, such as union with neighboring Wyoming.

State of Jefferson Population MapA more long-standing secession drive seeks to create the new state of Jefferson, to be carved out of far northern California and southern Oregon. The Jefferson movement got off to a strong start in 1942 when “a group of young men gained national media attention when, brandishing hunting rifles for dramatic effect, they stopped traffic on U.S Route 99 south of Yreka, and handed out copies of a Proclamation of Independence, stating that the state of Jefferson was in ‘patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon’” (as noted in the Wikipedia article on the topic).  The start of World War II cut the movement short, but it has continued to periodically resurface. In early September of this year, the Board of Supervisors of Siskiyou County voted 4-1 to “pursue seceding from California,” a move prompted by “a lack of representation in Sacramento for the Republican-majority county, [and] issues pertaining to water rights and the rural fire prevention fee.” Several weeks later, the Board of Supervisors in neighboring Modoc County voted 4-0 to join the movement. Similar proposals are being considered in other northern California counties, including Butte, Shasta and Lassen. “California is essentially ungovernable in its present size,” claims Mark Baird, a spokesperson for the Jefferson Declaration Committee.

The original Jefferson proposal included only a handful of counties, seven in the main version (three in California and four Oregon), and five in another (four in California and one in Oregon). More recent proposals are more ambitious; the State of Jefferson Project website features a map of the new state that would encompass nineteen counties. In all of these proposals, the modest town of Yreka (population 7,800) in Siskiyou County would serve as the capital. Regardless of which specific version is considered, Jefferson would have a fairly small population. The seven-county scheme would have only some 458,000 residents, over 80 percent of whom currently live in Oregon, while the nineteen-county version would have a population of roughly 1,416,000, a majority of whom currently live in California.

The Jefferson proposal, like most other state division ideas, is rooted primarily in population density and voting patterns. As the map posted to the left shows, far northern California and southern Oregon forms a low population zone sandwiched between the much more densely populated regions of greater Portland in northwestern Oregon and the San Francisco and Sacramento metropolitan areas of California. It is also a reliably conservative, Republican-voting region, again in sharp contrast to the urban and suburban areas of both states. Although Oregon may appear to be a Republican-leaning state on the electoral map, the concentration of its population in the Portland metro area ensures its general support for candidates from the Democratic Party. In California, the electoral imbalance is even more pronounced, preventing the Republican Party from acting in a competitive manner in statewide elections.

State of Jefferson Politics MapA close analysis of electoral and population maps, however, shows that the proposed state of Jefferson encounters political problems of its own. In the seven-county version, the demographic core of the would-be state, containing almost half of its population, is Jackson County, Oregon. But Jackson is a “purple” or swing county that has been trending leftward over the past several decades. Although George W. Bush won it handily in 2000, with 54 percent of the vote, Jackson narrowly supported Barack Obama in 2008. As increasing numbers of people are moving from California’s Bay Area to Jackson’s cultured town of Ashland, site of Southern Oregon University and the noted Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it may well move further to the left in future elections. As a result, staunchly conservative Jefferson advocates may be advised to drop Jackson Country from their design.

The proposal for a larger state of Jefferson encounters similar problems. Two of its counties, Humboldt and Mendocino, are Democratic-voting—Mendocino strongly so—and two others, Butte* and Trinity, are now electoral toss-ups. Although the Jefferson website includes a plea for secession from Humboldt County based on the dire condition of the local logging industry, marijuana cultivation is a vastly more profitable business, and local cannabis growers and those who rely on their patronage would not in general be inclined to support membership in a conservative state. State of Jefferson advocates would find more backing if they were to focus their outreach efforts on the interior rather than the coastal counties of northern California.

*Butte is a relatively liberal county largely because of the presence of California State University, Chico, which has more than 16,000 students.


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  • HoundsTooth

    the problem with dividing a state (or creating a new one) due to political differences is the belief that these political ideals will be permanent. who’s to say if these political ideals will even last?

    • Excellent point! Though it does seem that certain ideas and ideals tend to live on in certain places (e.g. cities being more leftist, progressive, liberal, whatever).

      • HoundsTooth

        I’ve had Chinese students who laugh at their over-zealous parents and their political beliefs. Imagine that; you have proud, patriotic parents who feel that they’ve created a country they wanna live in, and then their children come along and prefer to live in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Veeery common for me…don’t get me wrong, creating a country based on religious beliefs (maybe even creating a country out of race, too, as that is questionable) is just as foolish. Basically, it’s people being stupid. They wanna create a state which is free from other people who aren’t like them.

        • The change between generations is not uncommon: I think to some extent it was also the case in the former USSR.

          But I don’t agree with you that creating a country based on shared beliefs, whether they are cultural, religious or whatever is foolish. Actually, I can’t think of a better way to create a country that would function for any length of time. It’s never possible to create a 100% pure state “free from other people who aren’t like them”, but a certain critical mass of people who share beliefs is necessary, IMHO.

          • HoundsTooth

            heh, i went over the top there…
            i totally agree with what you said there. political beliefs are always in flux. i’m nowhere near as radical as i was when i was an undergrad. i’d imagine most of the cadres in whatever country ‘loosened’ a bit with the wisdom of aging…

        • Leila26

          I think they want to create a state where they aren’t looked down on. Also, the people in cities love to say really mean things about “rednecks” and conservatives.

    • Good point, but some of these divisions are relatively long-lived. The Jefferson proposal, for example, has been around for over 70 years. It is also true that voting patterns at the county level in the US are relatively persistent.

    • Leila26

      Who cares. Let them have their way.

  • Meow

    We in Wyoming DO NOT WANT the Colorado refugees, if it comes to that. There will be NO hooking up with Wyoming. Ask anyone in Wyoming: they would utterly reject that proposal. Wyoming doesn’t get along very well with Colorado. 🙂

    • Quite interesting. Any particular reason for the mistrust?

      • Meow

        Wyoming and Colorado are really different from each other, though the states are shaped very similarly and they are both in the western United States. Wyoming is much more “raw,” rugged and libertarian than Colorado. Colorado is very slightly larger but has close to 10 times as many people. The states are just very different from each other. A Wyoming journalist recently wrote an interesting article about the situation:

        • Thank you for sharing these comments, Meow! The article you linked to is very interesting indeed. It will be interesting to see how this sucession issue plays out in November. We might do additional posts on other areas of the country that want to sucede, so stay tuned!

          • Meow

            Sounds great, thank you!

  • Stacy123456

    These people truly should study their American Civil War history harder and more critically; this issue was decided long ago and over GREAT blood costs.

    • That’s true in regarding to seceding from the country, but seceding from a state is a much more mild move — not that I think it will actually happen.

      • Leila26

        Why not?

    • Leila26

      Why would anyone want to fight because someone wants to secede?
      That’s crazy.

  • James Ward

    As a fan of Geocurrents and a Josephine county native I’m pleased to see Jefferson getting this sort of attention. While the impetus behind the Jefferson revival may come from the right, the State of Jefferson is also popular among some left leaning residents. Even the Southern Oregon University radio station is called Jefferson Public Radio.

    • Thank you for sharing this, James! We are always happy to hear from our fans.

    • Excellent point — I considered mentioning the radio station in the post. The area has a lot of libertarian-oriented people, most of whom lean right, but some lean left as well. Some are difficult to classify. I know people in Mendocino County, for example, who are on far left on many issues, but also also gun enthusiasts and strong supports of gun rights. Some even jokingly call themselves “hippie rednecks” — an interesting synthesis.

      • Indeed, libertarianism shows that the one dimensional left-right division is inadequate, doesn’t it?

  • JT

    Form Jefferson as a state and simply have a tax at half that of California and watch how much grow the new land will garnish!

    • Leila26


    • Dee Gee

      Nah, if all the environmental laws are removed, all the loggers will destroy the rest forests. This will not eliminate over expansion, it will only create more of it. At some point the SOJ movement will have to realize how the economy works, which I do not think they sadly do, it least some may.

  • Peter Rosa

    Every so often there are semi-serious proposals for Upstate New York to break off and become its own state. It’s not hard to understand why some people think that way, as Upstate tends to be overshadowed and neglected, however it’s questionable as to whether such a economically struggling region could be viable on its own.

  • D. Schwartz

    And apparently 6 of the counties voted no to secession leaving 5 near Nebraska and Kansas with a Yes. One would think they may just try to shift to a different state.

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  • Leila26

    All of Eastern Oregon looks very conservative.

  • Leila26

    Cities have thousands of HIV/AIDS victims. They have long had ex-cons relocating there after prison stints. In other words, though they have their sophisticated citizens, they also have a lot of illegals, ex-cons and the diseased.
    Of course, they vote for more Medicaid. More government “assistance”…..and little accountability to family or friends. Being anonymous is their goal – and being supported financially.

  • Dee Gee

    This will just contribute to over population sadly..