• California is trying to break apart. It isn't the first state to try.

    By: USA Today

    Updated:

    A newly approved ballot proposal in California will put an unusual question to voters in November: Do they want California to be split into three separate states?

    Under the proposal, California would be divided into California, North California and South California. Spearheaded by venture capitalist Tim Draper, the proposal argues that California's single state government is unable to serve the needs of such an economically, politically and culturally diverse state. 

    If the measure passes, it would still need approval from Congress — an unlikely prospect — before two new stars can be added to the flag. It already faces long odds: An April poll by Survey USA found that California voters were against the measure by a margin of 4 to 1.

    But it's far from the first attempt to divide a state into smaller states or break away from an existing state and join another one. 

    In California alone, separatists have tried to divide the state more than 200 times. And dissenting pockets in many other states, at one time or another over the course of American history, have wanted to free themselves from their government.

    More: Voters will decide if California should be split into three states

    More: Rural California wants a divorce from rich California

    "Often it has to do with identification," said Kit Wellman, a political philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "So if there are distinct identities within a larger unit, people might identify more with a subgroup and say, 'Look, we want to be politically organized around this identity.'"

    The only successful instance of a state breaking away from another state is West Virginia, which successfully seceded from Virginia to join the Union after Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in 1861. 

    But that doesn't mean other states haven't tried. New York's history is riddled with secession attempts: The state's western counties, northern counties, Staten Island, Long Island and New York City itself have all wanted at one time or another to form independent states. 

    In 2015, 15 upstate New York towns explored the possibility of leaving New York and joining Pennsylvania after growing frustrated with high property taxes and New York's ban on hydraulic fracturing. A similar movement is currently pushing to divide New York into two or three autonomous regions under a nominal state government — essentially a divide without the necessity of congressional approval. 

    California's initiative is different from other secession movements within states, Wellman said, since a top-down movement is pushing for division rather than a disgruntled minority looking to break free. 

    Killington, a ski resort town in Vermont, fits into the latter category. It voted in 2004 to secede from Vermont and join neighboring New Hampshire after residents grew incensed over a tax system they believed required Killington to pay far more to the state tax pool than it was getting back.

    The New Hampshire Legislature ultimately passed a bill setting up a commission to study the possible move, if Vermont would do the same. Vermont never agreed and the movement died. 

    "Usually we see secession movements when the people of a region feel like an alienated minority," said Jason Sorens, a secessionism expert at Dartmouth University. "They feel outvoted or discriminated against or even oppressed."

    In the unlikely event the California measure passes, the U.S. political landscape would shift, not least with the addition of four new senators. Its success, experts say, would also raise the secession hopes of political groups across the country.

    "Nationally I think you’d see a spate of movements and you’d see all kinds of people trying to replicate this," Wellman said. "If this goes through, other people would start fantasizing about what they would be able to do."

     

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