07/17/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Six Californias: Conservative Plan, Techie Self-Indulgence or Both?

In November of 2016, voters in California will vote on whether or not to divide the state into six different states. If the Six Californias, as this proposal is being called, initiative passes, nothing will happen right away. Creating new states requires action by Congress and cannot simply be done by the people of a given state.The initiative is the brainchild of Tim Draper, a wealthy California venture capitalist. Without Draper's money, the proposal would not have received enough signatures to make it onto the ballot. Presumably, Draper will continue to support the initiative during the election campaign.

At its heart, the Six Californias proposal is largely an act of self-indulgence on the part of Draper, who has catapulted himself into the news and started an interesting, if inane, debate about California's structure and governance. Draper's argument essentially boils down to noting that there are problems of governance and economics in California, which is true, and asserting that the solution is to break up the state, create more bureaucracy, sever off the affluent parts of the state from the less affluent parts and raise a lot of unanswerable questions about how things like state universities, state parks, pension funds and the like will be divided.

The proposal is, however, more than self-indulgence; it is part of a broader trend of conservative proposals masquerading as techi-libertarianism. The heart of Draper's proposal is not about better or more innovative governance, but about changing the composition of California's senate delegation and diluting the electoral college votes it has delivered to the Democratic candidate for president in every election since 1992. Since 1992, California has had also two Democratic senators. Given the demographic and political makeup of California as it is now constituted, neither of these things are likely to change anytime soon. However, Draper's proposal would change that.

The proposed Six Californias map would bunch California's Democrats into the three relatively populous new states of West California, Silicon Valley and North California. Silicon Valley and North California would be reasonably competitive between the two parties, while West California would likely remain Democratic. The other three new states, Jefferson, South California and Central California would all be sparsely populated and heavily Republican. The real explanation for this initiative is not better governance but taking two net Democratic Senate seats and turning them into, at best, a split between the two parties, with the real possibility of Republicans holding seven or eight of the 12 total Senate seats. Similarly, the Six Californias initiative would substantially reduce the margin of California's net 54 Democratic votes in the electoral college.

There are other notable things about the Six Californias proposal, including the way the lines have been drawn to reflect California of the last, at most, 20 years, but nothing before that. For example, San Francisco is part of Silicon Valley, but Marin County, a place with a deep and organic connection to San Francisco would be in North California a different state. For anybody whose knowledge of California precedes Yahoo! and Google, this seems absurd.

Despite its not very well-veiled partisan goals, impracticality and illogic, there is something intriguing about the Six Californias proposal. More accurately, there is something intriguing about rethinking how the role states play in US politics, specifically in the Senate and the electoral college. Being under-represented in the US Senate and having less influence in the electoral college, because of the two electoral votes each state gets because of its Senate representation, is the real structural problem facing Californians, not an overly burdensome state government as Draper claims.

It is possible that the Six Californias initiative will pass in November, but very difficult to imagine it moving forward at the national level. The opposition from Democrats will be very strong; and the potential for it to set a precedent for other states will give Republicans pause as well. After all, if three Republican states can be carved out of California, it should be pretty easy to find two Democratic states in currently solidly Republican Texas or to divide heavily Republican but racially polarized states like Alabama or Mississippi into two states, one for each party.

It is very likely that a year from now the Six Californias initiative itself will be all but forgotten, but it may be part of a bigger political trend in California. Draper's conservative proposal is being presented to the people of California as the product of new thinking and innovation. These buzzwords are used to deflect basic questions like how a very interconnected state can be divided into six entities or why six of every regulatory agency and state government agency will make anybody's life easier. In the next few years, we will likely see more attempts to wrap conservative proposals in this kind of sleek language. Efforts to deregulate businesses, weaken government institutions and laws that offer valuable services and protection to working and poor Californians will be presented as new high-tech forms of governance or of bringing the expertise of Silicon Valley to bear on the state's problems. California voters will need to be increasingly vigilant to identify and deflect this type of techie-conservative chicanery.

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