In California, nothing succeeds like…secession?

Bill Whalen Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
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To the always amusing, ever growing list of “only in California” oddities, this isn’t one of them: Last week the Siskiyou County’s Board of Supervisors approved a motion to secede from the Golden State and form a new State of Jefferson (as in Thomas, not George, though “Movin’ on Up” would make for a nifty state anthem).

The action, which was approved by a 4-1 vote, wasn’t unique in that it was only last month when a band of disgruntled northeastern Colorado counties floated the idea of becoming the American flag’s 51st star. Other movements are afoot in Vermont and Maryland.

Nor is this the first time Californians have wanted to subdivide their state; they have what would be the world’s eight-largest economy, with a population roughly the same as Poland’s. No less than 45 proposals for chopping up California have emerged over the course of the state’s 160-year history. A recent one would have introduced a north-south divide along the commuter-hostile Tehachapi Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, creating a mostly Streisand-friendly “Western California” of 13 coastal counties, and a more Limbaugh-friendly “South California” of 13 predominately inland counties.

But in the state that popularized no-fault divorce, lawmakers have shown scant interest in breaking up the state’s crazy quilt of 58 counties. Nor would a congressional supermajority ever sign off on a reallotment of precious electoral votes (more on that in a moment).

So what’s eating the good people of Siskiyou Country? Surprisingly, it’s not the “usual suspects” of the California whine industry: steep taxes, exorbitant housing prices, gridlocked roads, struggling K-12 schools. Instead, it’s what Siskiyou locals refer to as “five r’s” of misery imposed by state and federal governments: too much regulation coming out of Washington and Sacramento, restrictions on rights like the 2nd Amendment, representation in a large area with little political clout, regionalism (zoning and planning taken away from local government) and, finally, restoration of limited government.

In this regard, welcome to a California that’s divided not only by fractures in the earth, but by a cultural and philosophical schism that increasingly leaves non-liberal, non-metropolitan, non-big government Californians – i.e., folks who live more than 50 miles from the coast – out in the cold.

And in Siskiyou’s case, the deck is especially stacked.

Covering a vast amount of northernmost Shasta Cascade California, Siskiyou is 50 percent larger than Los Angeles County with not even one two-hundredth of the population. So much for having any kind of voting clout in Sacramento.

Fitting for a county that’s home to the Salmon River, it swims against the state’s political current: in 2012, it preferred Mitt Romney to President Obama and rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax-raising Proposition 30. Indeed, the county’s political split – 40 percent registered Republicans vs. 30 percent registered Democrats – is the mirror opposite of the statewide partisan makeup.

While California slowly recovers from its prolonged recession, rural Siskiyou isn’t sharing in the comeback (11.5% unemployment up north vs. 7% in Silicon Valley). Natural resources – farming, logging, mining – are the backbone of the local economy. Lawsuits and state and federal over-regulation (limited water rights and, most recently, a $150 annual fire-prevention fee) continue to put a damper on such growth.

And perhaps most maddening to the local population: the county’s seat, Yreka is 260 north of Sacramento and 280 miles south of Salem, Oregon’s state capital. Thus Siskiyou is the midway point for two of America’s preeminent state nuthouses – Oregon, seemingly determined to outdo its southern neighbor in regulatory absurdity, has delved into such weighty matters as caged hens, roaming mountain lions, and banning canned corn as fish bait.

The question is: how can Siskiyou change the political equation, given that California will be electing Democrats and progressives for the foreseeable future?

While the secession talk succeeded in drawing attention to the county’s plight, the movement won’t get beyond being symbolic gestures. History says as much. In November 1941, a group of young men, adorned with hunting rifles, stopped traffic on U.S. Rte. 99 south of Yreka to hand out copies of a Jeffersonian “Proclamation of Independence,” vowing to secede every Thursday until further notice. That was 10 days before Pearl Harbor, after which time such protests seemed too unpatriotic in a nation at war.

(Besides, Jefferson’s founding fathers will have to do something about its state flag – unless the idea behind sporting a Dos Equis-like double-x logo is to get “the most interesting man in the world” to be its first governor.)

There is one way that Siskiyou – and other rural California counties should they band together – can strike back at the Golden State’s power establishment. But it will entail a very nasty fight at the ballot box.

Before each of the last two presidential elections, California’s toyed with a ballot initiative that would alter how the state allocates its 55 electoral votes. Instead of the winner-take-all system, 53 of the Golden State’s electoral votes would be decided individually by congressional district, which is how it’s done in Maine and Nebraska. Before the 2008 and 2012 elections, this plan was discussed but it never actually qualified for the statewide ballot. If such a system had been in place in 2012, President Obama would have received 43 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 12, with three electoral votes going to Obama in districts that he carried by 4% or less (John McCain would have received 11 electoral votes in 2008).

Looking ahead to 2016, such a reform to California election law wouldn’t be a game-changer. Still, putting 15 California electoral votes in the Republican column is the equivalent of giving the GOP candidate one North Carolina, or the combined electoral totals of Colorado and Nevada. Moreover a competition for more localized electoral votes would force both parties to invest money in California swing congressional districts instead of parking it in the nation’s purple states.

It won’t change what’s bugging Siskiyou County. But it would strike a blow against the progressive mindsets in Sacramento and Washington that treat rural Californians as out of sight, and out of favor.