Is the Effort to Split California Into 3 States Futile?

By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)

The past year saw the rise and fall of California Proposition 3 (Cal 3), an initiative proposing to split California into three states. Sponsored by venture capitalist Tim Draper, it aimed to divide California into three: Northern California, Southern California, and California.

Although Cal 3 gained enough voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot, the California Superior Court moved to take the initiative off the ballot in June. Despite its failure, the potential reality of a California break-up remains relevant—to this date, Californians have made over 200 attempts to divide since statehood in 1849.

Proponents of a California split assert that the move would lead to fairer representation. Compared to other states, California’s voice in federal government is highly diluted—Texas has one senator for every 12,365,209 residents, New York and Florida have one for every 9 million, while California has one senator for every 18,670,995 Californians. Proponents of the split also contend that it would make state legislation more accountable and responsive to the individual needs. Draper, for example, alleges that the state’s failing education systems, high taxes, and deteriorating infrastructure are all phenomena caused by strained government.

While splitting up California may lead to closer connections between government and residents, Cal 3’s claims can be misleading. The Cal 3 website implies that Cal 3 will definitively benefit Californians through measures such as lowering taxes and strengthening education, but it is impossible to guarantee that the new states will do the same things or anything at all. As the California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) wrote, “these states would make their own decisions about state and local taxes and spending.” Assumptions cannot be made regarding what they will or will not do.

What is certain, however, is the highly complex discussions that will need to be had for a split to take place. For example, California’s public higher education system, consisting of 114 community colleges, 23 CSU campuses, and 10 UC campuses, would be divided under the responsibilities of three different jurisdictions. Breaking up California could lead to complicated decision-making regarding in-state tuition and other factors for the over two million students enrolled. Maintenance costs and federal research funding would also not be evenly distributed among the three states, the LAO reports. Education represents only one of the state services that would not divide easily under a split, with others including prison populations or the water supply system, which LAO wrote to be “one of the most complex in the world.”

There are additionally a number of legal obstacles that a proposal to split California would face. In California, a proposal could make its way to the ballot either through two pathways: an amendment or revision. An amendment, which requires two-third majority in each state house of the legislature or sufficient voter signatures to appear on the ballot, contrasts with a “revision,” which can be placed on the ballot only with a two-third majority of both houses or through the decision of a state constitutional convention.

Cal 3, in particular, deemed itself an amendment and made its way onto the ballot through voter signatures. Critics, however, had argued that a plan to split California would fall under the definition of a revision, which is considered to be “substantial change to the entire constitution, rather than… a less extensive change in one or more of its provisions.”

Additionally, even if Cal 3 were an amendment, there may be conflicts with Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “no new States shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state… without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” There is no clear consensus on whether popular initiative by the people of the state, should Cal 3 pass had passed on the ballot, would be sufficient to amount to the “consent of the legislature.” When West Virginia became a state in 1863, Section 3 was interpreted to require the vote of the state legislature itself and Congress. LAO has noted that “largely because the voter initiative process did not emerge until decades after 1863, there is no clear precedent for whether a voter initiative may provide the required state legislative consent to split a state.” It further notes that the California court has swung both ways, in some context allowing voter initiatives to substitute for required actions of state legislatures and not in others.

A plan to split up California would face heavy implications as well on California’s participation in the federal politics. Cal 3, for example, would have increased the number of senatorial seats the California territories hold from two to six. This is a possibility that Republicans may be wary of. However, under Cal 3 borders, “Southern California” would include several more conservative districts, making it a swing state. As such, Democrats may also be wary of changing the status quo to risk their stronghold on the state’s current 55 electoral votes.

As tensions rise within California, as well as between California and the federal government, the demand for greater independence may be growing. The Draper proposal, failure or not, can serve as important precedent for any future policies that may be similar directed—the fact that the Cal 3 initiative had gained 402,468 votes showcases the relevance this idea holds in the minds of Californians. Such a measure would have to bypass a multitude of political and legal battles—whether or not it would succeed, however, is a question to be tested another time.

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