November 9, 2013
Tuesday’s election had all the pundits frothing at the mouth about the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, and the mayoral election in New York City. Somehow these all portend something for the 2016 presidential election, which they are sure will be an epic battle between Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton. Or not. It’s a long time off. Who knows what will happen in between.
The election that caught my eye was a referendum in Colorado where eleven rural counties had asked voters to authorize the counties to look at the feasibility of seceding from Colorado to form a 51st state to be known as North Colorado. With one exception, the eleven counties were all in the northeast corner of the state. On my Rand-McNally map of Colorado, they appear to be uninhabited. The biggest town is Sterling, with a population of about 15,000. This part of Colorado is really Kansas or Nebraska.
It’s been hard to find any great campaign material about it. I get the sense that most of the campaign has been run on media no more sophisticated than fliers tacked to the bulletin board at the local quickie-mart in a few of the towns big enough to have a quickie-mart. No need for any kind of complicated Internet presence in a part of the world where the internet is as slow as it is at my house.
The nature of the secessionist movement is pretty basic. The good, god-fearing people of the plains are tired of Colorado being run by what the "Daily Beast" called the pot-smoking, arugula eaters from Denver and Boulder. The legislature has passed all kinds of laws that run contrary to the will of God and common sense, like renewable energy standards and making it more difficult to shoot up schools and movie theaters. The plainsmen want no part of that kind of stuff, and decided they would set up their own state to be free of urban oppression.
It’s a divide that exists all over the country. If you want to see it in person, drive to Coalville for lunch some day. We ended up with two planning commissions because the world looks so dramatically different in Snyderville and Coalville. So eleven Colorado counties decided they had had enough, and wanted to let the voters decide whether they should pursue an exit strategy.
In five of the 11, the proposal passed, often by large margins. Phillips County voted in favor of secession by 62%, and Washington County by 58%. That sounds impressive, but these are counties with no people in them. The largest county had 1,900 votes cast. The total population of the eleven-county area is about 30,000 people, even though it’s about a quarter of the state land area.
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Of course, the proposal is not going anywhere. To form a new state requires the approval of the legislature of the state they are breaking away from (which they might get, since studies show these rural counties are a net drag on the Colorado treasury after the state funds their schools). But it also requires approval of Congress. It seems improbable that congressmen from other states are going to approve the formation of a new state with 30,000 people, giving it two Senators like New York or California, and one member in the House. A more plausible outcome might be changing state boundaries to connect them to Kansas or Wyoming, where there is maybe a better cultural fit. Though even that seems very unlikely, because, hey, there are only 30,000 people there, so who cares.
As a stunt to send a message to the legislature that they feel neglected, ignored, and imposed on, it probably had some effect. In state-wide politics, nobody is very concerned about the 1,500 votes spread out over hundreds of square miles of Kit Carson County. In a lot of ways, I suspect what they really want is to be even more ignored and neglected by the state, as long as the school and road funding keeps coming.
Bizarre as Summit County is, with a huge cultural disconnect at roughly Highway 40, the secession movement may have some relevance to us. Annexing to Wyoming has some advantages — unregulated liquor, no income tax, dangerous fireworks, etc. Of course, Wyoming prides itself on providing nothing by way of services. Their approach to snow removal on I-80 is to lock the gates if it snows after dark. They are not about to pay overtime to the highway department. They aren’t much for environmental protection, either, with the exception of Jackson and Yellowstone.
So I’m not sure that joining up with Wyoming is a solution to any of our problems. Summit County, at least the western third, remains a cultural and economic outlier in Utah. It’s not all that hard to see how secessionist movements get started.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.