Facing Donald Trump’s imminent entrance to the Oval Office, the once outlandish idea of secession doesn’t seem so crazy anymore to some Californians.
But the Golden State’s path to independence is blocked with financial and political hurdles, from an expensive state initiative process to persuading two-thirds of Congress to relinquish an economic and tourism powerhouse.
Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist who teaches election law at the University of Southern California, called breaking up the union “an inconceivable thought.”
“I don’t see how Californians get to the point where a majority of us want to secede,” Sragow said. “I cannot envision a circumstance under which the rest of the country would even think about this for a nanosecond.”
A grass-roots group of secessionists, calling themselves Yes California, last week proposed a November 2018 ballot measure that would ask registered voters if the state should become its own nation.
The group believes California pays more than its share of federal taxes, money the state could use to modernize and fix its infrastructure. The federal government collects about $370 billion in taxes from Californians each year and spends roughly $334 billion in the state.
Yes California points to the state’s overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton and voters’ liberal ideals to show that California is often at odds with the rest of the nation.
The 2018 measure also would strike language from the California Constitution that says the state is “an inseparable part of the United States of America, and the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land.”
If approved by voters, it would establish a March 2019 statewide special election to ask voters again if they want California to become an independent country.
To qualify for the ballot, the group needs to gather more than 500,000 signatures, John Hancocks that can cost big money in California. During the run-up to the presidential election, some statewide ballot measure campaigns were paying signature gatherers more than $5 per signature.
Yes California, which bills itself as a grass-roots organization, intends to enlist volunteers to gather signatures, according to Vice President Marcus Ruiz Evans. Evans said 13,000 volunteers have already agreed to help.
In theory, California’s ballot measure process allows anybody to propose a law or amendment to the constitution and go directly to voters. But it’s tough for grass-roots groups to mount successful campaigns without financial support.
“Operationally qualifying for the ballot is difficult and ordinarily involves the expenditure of large amounts of money in the seven figures,” Sragow said. “That’s a hurdle that very few grass-roots movements clear.”
Despite how many pledge to help, it’s unlikely that enough volunteers feel so strongly about California’s need to secede that they will dedicate time out of their own busy schedules to knock on doors and stand outside grocery stores asking for signatures, said Larry Gerston, an emeritus political science professor at San Jose State.
Gerston also doubts a majority of Californians want to secede.
“It tells me that they just don’t have the legs,” Gerston said. “This movement has a small core. It makes news because it’s different. It would be extraordinary for it to go much farther than it’s gone.”
Even well-funded campaigns struggle to qualify for the ballot.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist and billionaire Tim Draper proposed a ballot measure to carve California into six states in 2014. Draper spent $5.2 million to make “Six Californias” a reality, but ultimately fell short of the more than 800,000 signatures needed to quality for the November 2016 ballot.
Louis J. Marinelli, president of Yes California, filed a handful of statewide ballot measures related to secession in 2015 and none qualified for the November ballot. He also waged an unsuccessful campaign to represent state Assembly District 80, but didn’t advance beyond the June primary, and opposed Draper’s “Six Californias” plan.
If the group beats the odds, qualifies for the ballot and voters pass the measure, it still faces an uphill battle to gain official approval.
Experts say the strongest legal avenue for California to become its own nation is through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would require approval by two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states in the country.
While the Constitution doesn’t specifically address secession, an amendment granting California’s independence would act as the supreme law of the land, said Gerston.
Daniel Farber, a law professor at UC Berkeley, pointed to a Supreme Court decision, Texas v. White, in 1869 that said Texas “entered into an indissoluble relation” when it became part of the United States. The case related to bonds sold by Texas during the Civil War.
The Supreme Court ruling determined “the Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible States.” Texas could only revoke its inclusion in the union “through revolution or through consent of the States,” the court rule.
Experts threw cold water on Yes California’s alternative strategy to appeal to the United Nations to recognize California as its own country. They said it wouldn’t hold up in court and other countries might hesitate to embrace California as an independent nation anyway if it hadn’t resolved issues of currency and military with Washington.
Congress has approved 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. The most recent, which prevents Congress from giving itself pay raises during the current session, was initially proposed in 1789 by James Madison. Three-quarters of the states approved it in 1992.
Gerston doesn’t believe national leaders would choose to part with California, which would represent the sixth largest economy of any country in the world. From Hollywood to the agricultural industry to Silicon Valley, there’s too much business in California for Congress to sign off on the plan, he said.
“All we have to do is take a look at the value of the state,” Gerston said. “It would be an incredible loss. California is a very robust state for a reason and it has to do with all these resources here both man-made and natural.”
Yes California isn’t the first group to call for the state to restructure.
Back in 1941 residents in Northern California and Southern Oregon raised the flag of Jefferson, marked with two X’s to protest double-crossing politicians in Sacramento and Salem who failed to properly represent their mining interests. The activists wanted to form a new state, but the movement fizzled after Pearl Harbor.
Calls to establish Jefferson have revived over the years. Most recently, Jefferson supporters rallied at the Capitol and said 21 Northern California counties had signed on to breakaway. The group, led by Mark Baird, couldn’t find a legislator to carry their bill allowing Jefferson to become the 51st state.
Yes California doesn’t expect to gain independence overnight.
“Our goal is to get to a tipping point,” Ruiz Evans said. “Our point is to prove there’s a market.”
With little funding and no concrete support from California’s political establishment, Ruiz Evans knows it’s a long shot. He hopes the ballot measure can prove that Californians are at least interested in the idea and open to more serious conversations about the possibility. Then he welcomes a white knight.
“We think if we can show there are a lot of people who are interested in this that a bigger fish will either support us or take the movement all the way to the end,” he said.
“We are hopeful that it could be us, but that’s too much to ask from the universe. We don’t project too far and we don’t project that optimistically, especially when what we’re talking about is so beyond the reality.”