THE BLOG
11/06/2013 08:08 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

East Colorado Reservations

Yesterday, the citizens of five counties in eastern Colorado voted to "pursue becoming the 51st state." While seceding was on the ballot in a total of 11 counties, six wound up voting the notion down. But Washington, Phillips, Yuma, Kit Carson and Cheyenne counties all approved the measure. The chances of East Colorado becoming a new state are pretty slim, but maybe there's another answer to their pleas for autonomy.

East Colorado (or whatever they decide to call it) is just not very likely to become the 51st star on the flag, no matter what the voters in those five counties think. In order for a state to be formed in this fashion, it would require not just a positive vote from those living in the affected area, but also the approval of the Colorado state government -- giving them permission to leave, to put it plainly. And then there's an even higher hurdle: the U.S. Congress would have to vote to approve the plan as well.

Even assuming that Colorado allowed the counties to leave, it would be an almost impossible sell to the rest of the country. You might think other states would shrug and say "fine with us" if East Colorado wants to become a state. You would be wrong. Because of one simple political fact: states get two senators. If it were an easy process, what would stop (for instance) Texas from splitting into five states? Or 10? A better example is the District of Columbia. Washington, D.C. has been pushing for statehood for decades, now. They have not succeeded.

But perhaps a swap could be brokered? Allow liberal D.C. to become a state while also allowing conservative East Colorado in? I doubt this would work either, because so few people live on Colorado's eastern plains. The most populous of the five counties who voted for secession is Yuma, with a whopping 10,043 people (all these figures are from the 2010 U.S. Census). The least populous is Cheyenne, with only 1,836 people in the whole county. The grand total population of the five together is only 29,405 -- the size of one medium suburb anywhere else in the nation. If additional perspective is needed, the people in the five counties make up a little over one-half of one percent (0.0058) of Colorado's total population. Weld County voted down the secession idea, and it has over 250,000 people -- more than eight times the population of the five who passed the measure. Washington, D.C. has a little over 600,000 people. The least-populous state (Wyoming) has 563,000 citizens. So it's a pretty safe bet that the rest of the country isn't going to give East Colorado's 29,405 people their own two senators any time soon.

Most "let's split the state up" movements lead to failure. Historically, there have been quite a few attempts at forming states which led nowhere. Today there are disgruntled conservatives making the attempt not only in Colorado but also in western Maryland. Where I live, in California, we've had a number of such attempts to carve the state up, in various different directions. Northern California and Southern California is the usual split, but an even better demographic idea was floated to divide the state on its long axis, making East and West California (which would separate the liberal cities on the coast from the conservative farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley and the Sierras).

Proponents, of course, point to the movements that did succeed. Most of these happened for three reasons, however, none of which holds true today. The first batch was when the country was being formed, and things like boundaries were up for serious discussion. Delaware used to be part of Pennsylvania, Vermont used to be part of New York, and Maine used to be the northern part of Massachusetts. After Maine joined in the Missouri Compromise, though, new regions were usually divided up when gigantic territories were cut down into separate states. Remember, Washington and Oregon used to technically be part of Louisiana (when we bought it from the French). The only other reason a state has successfully broken off was war -- when West Virginia was formed during the Civil War. Since then, no breakaway movement has ever succeeded.

The five counties do have one thing going for them, though: they all touch each other. They form a contiguous area on a map. Ten of the eleven counties who voted all touch each other in the northeastern corner of the state. The eleventh is over in the northwestern corner, and was essentially voting to switch teams and become a part of Wyoming. But rather than a patchwork (if a different five had voted "yes"), the five counties who want to secede all touch each other. This gave me an idea for a possible solution.

Putting secession on the ballot in a county is, pretty obviously, nothing more than a political stunt. It brings to mind those who launch efforts to amend the Constitution even though they know they're never going to succeed, in fact. Regular readers will know that I appreciate the value of a good political stunt, though. Whether used against Democrats or used against Republicans, stunts of this nature can indeed affect politics at large. Anyone who lived through the 1980s and 1990s will remember how influential constitutional amendment efforts were to ban flag burning, to balance the budget, to ban gay marriage, and to guarantee equal rights for women. All, in their way, affected politics nationally -- even though none succeeded.

But maybe there actually is an answer for East Colorado and West Maryland and all the other state wannabes. Because we do have a rather odd loophole in the whole "state/federal government" architecture. There are areas of certain states where state laws do not apply. These semi-autonomous areas make their own rules, enjoy their own government structure outside of the state/federal system, and handle their own government services (for example, police forces).

Don't believe me? Then think about one big change which has happened over the past 20 or 30 years. When I grew up, there were precisely two places you could go to gamble: Atlantic City and Nevada. Now there are hundreds of choices -- most of which were forced upon unwilling state governments who had outlawed the practice. Because the casinos sprang up on what used to be called "Indian reservations."

Americans don't normally think of tribal governments when thinking of the various layers of government which exist in our country. We certainly don't call them "homelands" (or, at least, we didn't when we were condemning South Africa for their homelands). But the fact remains that semi-autonomy can (and does) exist in America without resorting to forming new states.

Of course, we'd all have to think differently about the whole "reservation" concept if we were to grant disgruntled counties the same level as autonomy. But maybe it could work. If five counties in Colorado want to go their own way, then why not let them? Give them a similar deal as those worked out with the tribal governments. Maybe something along the lines of: you set your own laws, you provide all your own government services, and we'll give you a block grant equal to what taxes you pay to the state and federal government. If that leaves you with too little money to pay your cops and firefighters, well, that's what you wanted. Raise taxes yourself to solve the problem, or do without such "socialism." But, of course, we're not going to give you two seats in the United States Senate -- that's just too much to ask for.

I will admit that I'm being more than a little facetious here. Allowing each little group of people who don't like their state's government to form their own reservation would lead to changing the entire face of the country, in ways too numerous to count. Some would argue that it would "further divide" us, but in reality we already have divided, geographically, in many parts of the country. We're already walking down the path to "E Unum Pluribus" ("out of one, many," although that Latin's probably wrong somehow...). I live in a state which is overwhelmingly controlled by one party, but this means there are a whole lot of folks living here from the other party who essentially have no say at all in their government (on the state level, in the Senate, and in presidential contests). There are other states where the math is reversed. This leaves a lot of people to conclude that they're never going to have any say at all in the way they are governed. Which leads to not bothering to even vote, since elections are largely foreordained outcomes in which your party loses.

So -- even if it leads to a certain amount of chaos -- maybe semi-autonomous regions are one possible future that should at least be attempted in a few test cases. Maybe someone can come up with a better term than "reservation" (um, the "East Colorado Semi-Autonomous Block Grant Zone"? ...well, maybe not...). Maybe if five counties were faced with "going it alone" they would suddenly wake up to the value of state and federal government, when adding up how much all those government services are actually going to cost them. It certainly would be an interesting experiment.

 

[Note: For those interested, here is a county map of Colorado. The counties voting against secession: Moffat (in the upper-left corner), Weld, Logan, Sedgewick, Elbert, and Lincoln. Counties which approved secession: Washington, Phillips, Yuma, Kit Carson, and Cheyenne. Also, here is the Census page with the 2010 population data.]

 

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