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Many rural, often conservative, residents of large Democratic-controlled states are pushing to create their own states.
This article was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Activists in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have been pushing for statehood for decades. But they aren’t the only ones who aspire to create a 51st state.
Many rural, often conservative, residents of large Democratic-controlled states are tired of being overshadowed politically, culturally and economically by big cities.
They’ve tried legislation, elections and even redistricting. The problems can’t be solved by traditional means, they say. So why not use a tool built into the U.S. Constitution: create a new state out of an existing state through approval of both the state legislature and Congress?
It happened when Maine split from Massachusetts in 1820, and again when West Virginia split from Virginia in 1863 during the Civil War. Could Chicago split from Illinois now?
To be sure, creating a new state is a significant undertaking and unlikely to succeed, political scientists say. But long odds haven’t extinguished momentum for these quixotic movements.
In Illinois, a resolution calling on Congress to declare Chicago the 51st state has eight Republican cosponsors in the state House (there are 44 Republicans in the lower chamber) and support among many of the state’s conservative activists. It’s the second such bill in as many years.
Illinois state Rep. Brad Halbrook, the bill’s author, cites the many issues tearing the state apart. He listed Democrats’ “overreaching” stances on abortion, guns, immigration, debt, pensions, Medicaid spending, property taxes, green energy and workers’ compensation as just some of the reasons Chicago and Illinois should go their separate ways.
Recent polling from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale shows two-thirds of Illinois voters think the state is moving in the wrong direction. That same March poll from the Simon Institute shows “significant regional differences” in responses.
The state division hit a breaking point several years ago, when Illinois was mired in the longest fiscal stalemate in the United States since the Great Depression. The budget battle between Democratic lawmakers and then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner lasted more than two years, threatening public university accreditation, statewide road construction and “junk” credit ratings.
Halbrook blamed the impasse on Chicago-area Democrats.
“Everywhere I go, people say we just need to get rid of Chicago,” he told Stateline. “It gets rid of all of our problems. My constituency is serious about it. I’m trying to save the state.”
Halbrook has a small family farm in Shelbyville, a rural community along the Kaskaskia River in central Illinois with around 4,600 residents.
Forty percent of the Prairie State’s 12.7 million residents live in Cook County, the county surrounding Chicago. The broader Chicago metropolitan area consists of 9.5 million people. Without the Chicagoland area, Illinois would have fewer people than Connecticut.
Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office, and most of them are from Chicagoland — including 62 of the 74 Democrats in the House. The rest of Illinois is largely agricultural and conservative, aside from the parts of Illinois near St. Louis in neighboring Missouri and pockets of central Illinois.
A July 2018 paper from the Simon Institute found that Illinois’ politics “are marked and marred by regionalism.” The idea of dividing Illinois has been around throughout Illinois’ history, the paper says, despite “how impractical it is.”
While these regional divides are prevalent in other states across the country, it’s exaggerated in Illinois because of “the extent to which many Illinois leaders emphasize, exploit and exacerbate these regional differences for their own advantage,” the paper claims.
The Windy City has all the political power, the money and the economic growth, said G.H. Merritt, who runs New Illinois, a separation group that has begun starting chapters in counties throughout the state to build grassroots support. Merritt, a former nonprofit administrator, lives in Lake County, north of Chicago.
So far, she has 26 county chapters that want to split the rest of Illinois from Chicago. When forming her organization, Merritt sought advice from other state separation organizations, like New California. The group, which is run by a conservative radio talk show host, advocates for the creation of a new state split from the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas “to throw off the bonds of tyranny.”
Activists such as Merritt blame state Democratic leaders from Chicago for creating a “systemically corrupt climate” and many of the problems Illinois currently faces, like the $134 billion in unfunded pensions and other fiscal problems — despite the fact that these problems grew through both Democratic and Republican governorships.
“It’s not that we have anything against Chicago,” she said. “My gosh, my daughter lives there. But if you’re going to have a situation where a corner of the state is dominating everything, you’re going to have a case where the rest of the state is disenfranchised.”
But downstate Illinois gets disproportionately more state funding than Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, according to an April study from the Simon Institute.
Based on 2013 data, researchers found that Southern Illinois receives $2.81 in state funds for every dollar its residents pay in taxes, while Cook County receives 90 cents for every dollar paid in taxes. Merritt, though, rejects the study, saying funding to the many downstate public universities were unfairly included in the analysis. Plus, she said, the findings may be biased since the authors of the study have spoken out against state separation.
John Jackson, one of the study’s authors and a visiting professor at the Simon Institute, does believe that state separation is unrealistic. But, he said, that doesn’t mean he thinks the movement is just a fool’s errand. It’s about broader resentment.
“This represents a long-standing rural and urban divide that is serious in this state and prevents things from getting done,” Jackson said in an interview with Stateline. “It’s the same phenomenon all over the county and drove the Trump vote in 2016 and will again in 2020.”
There have been efforts to mend that divide. Halbrook said he was encouraged when Chicago’s incoming Democratic mayor, Lori Lightfoot, visited the General Assembly in April and declared in a speech to the Illinois House, “Working together, regardless of party or geography, I see new opportunities for all of us.” A visit to the statehouse from a Chicago mayor is rare, he said.
As a resolution, Halbrook’s measure is merely a statement supporting the state separation and not a bill that would actually create a new state.
Steve Brown, a spokesman for Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan, said the effort is being led by “only a handful of backwards-thinking legislators.” Brown said he hasn’t seen broad support for the bill, and he doubts it will go anywhere in the General Assembly.
Halbrook doesn’t expect his bill to even get a committee hearing either, but he still wants to continue speaking out and gaining supporters among his colleagues.
Not every cosponsor of the separation legislation really wants to leave Illinois, though.
Republican state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer said his primary interest is talking about the economic diversity of the state, as opposed to splitting it. Left-leaning policies — crafted so Chicago can be competitive with other major metropolises such as Los Angeles and New York City — get in the way of rural Illinois competing with rural Indiana and rural Missouri, because they are not “business-friendly,” he said.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think that the state of Illinois should be separate,” he said. “There’s a general frustration everywhere, especially in our liberal states dominated by the socialist, Democrat movements, where people are seeing the government take more.”
Not willing to wait on the state legislation, some activists, such as Athens resident Collin Cliburn, are turning to Illinois’ 102 counties to pass referendums that call for Chicago’s separation.
“There’s a huge awakening going around now in rural Illinois,” he said.
Cliburn goes from county to county, speaking at Libertarian Party and conservative group events, spreading the word and getting residents to sign petitions that call for county referenda. Illinois Separation, Cliburn’s group, has more than 20,000 supporters on Facebook.
He’s already seeing success. The Effingham County Board, representing a Southern Illinois county of 34,000 residents, voted in April to allow a referendum on the March 2020 ballot that would ask voters whether the county should coordinate with others about forming a new state.
Effingham County has been on the forefront of resisting the state legislature. Last year, it became the first county in the United States to use the “sanctuary” label to signal its determination to resist new state gun laws.
Cliburn said he’s gathered enough signatures in two other counties, Cumberland and Edwards, to qualify for a similar referendum. County officials still have to confirm the signatures, though.
A Broader Movement
Separation movements aren’t just gaining steam in Illinois. There are at least three bills before the New York legislature that deal with splitting up the state.
Several Republican lawmakers, upset with years of progressive immigration and gun control legislation, are advancing a bill that calls for a non-binding referendum on the matter.
Other Republican lawmakers want to pass legislation that calls for a 17-member working group within the Office of the State Comptroller to study the short-term and long-term economic ramifications of a split.
The author of that bill, Republican state Sen. Daphne Jordan, said she wonders whether upstate and downstate would be better off divided. “New York has become a tale of two states,” she said. Her proposed study would examine where the border would be.
In Washington state, Republican Rep. Matt Shea introduced legislation earlier this year to divide the state at the Cascade crest, creating the state of Liberty to the east. Seattle and coastal areas of Washington are more politically progressive than inland regions.
In California, the state Supreme Court last year removed a referendum from the ballot that would have allowed residents to vote on whether to split California into three states: California, Northern California and Southern California, separating the Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco metropolitan areas. The court cited “significant questions regarding the proposition’s validity” and ongoing constitutional challenges.
The rural-urban divide that fuels these movements isn’t just a problem for Republicans in Democratic-dominated states such as California, Illinois, New York and Washington. Gerrymandering efforts in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin have prevented urban Democrats from wielding power in those legislatures.
In early May, a three-judge federal panel tossed out Ohio’s congressional map for being unconstitutionally gerrymandered to dilute Democratic votes.
In many red states, there have been clashes between conservative state governments and liberal cities on issues including guns, minimum wage, paid family leave, plastic bag bans and tree ordinances, among others.
Most recently, the Republican legislature in Florida moved this month to prohibit cities from declaring themselves to be “sanctuaries” where local officials would refuse to assist federal immigration enforcement.
Jurisdictions in both red and blue states are “chafing under the dominance of state governments,” said Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University.
There might be benefits to breaking up big states, he said, including more interstate competition and giving more people political leadership that aligns with their own views. But getting through state legislatures and Congress remains a long shot. It could make secession slightly easier, Somin said, if one of the new states had the current capital and the other had the largest city.
Will Democratic members of Congress approve a new state that guarantees two new Republican seats? Republicans already oppose D.C. statehood because the two new senators who would join the chamber would almost certainly be Democrats.
The only way to get a new Republican-leaning state out of Illinois would be to pair it with a new Democratic state out of, for example, Texas, Somin said.
While it’s “highly unlikely” to succeed, Somin said, it’s still a debate worth having and a movement not to be dismissed.
“It’s not just a few disgruntled people,” he said. “It’s not isolated. It’s reflecting a broader issue of polarization within the states, and this might be one solution.”
Matt Vasilogambros is a staff writer at Stateline.