The California Secretary of State announced on January 27 that the California Independence Campaign could start collecting signatures to place state secession on the 2018 ballot. If passed, it would remove language from the California constitution holding that the state is an “inseparable part of the United States,” and force a special election asking Californians if they want to be independent.
Many will quickly dismiss this development, thinking that it is merely another sign of discontent over the election of Donald Trump. And they would not be wrong to recognize that his ascension has helped the movement gain steam. But “CalExit” is driven by something far more complex. Secession efforts are a response to a democratic deficit at the federal level that has muffled Californians’ voices for nearly a half-century. Put simply, Californians do not feel represented because they aren’t.
Allow me to explain: By design, the Constitution attempts to balance power between populous and less-populous states. Indeed, adopting a bicameral legislature was a compromise—to be sure, a “Great Compromise”—aimed at ensuring that states with varying populations were nevertheless still represented in the national legislature. A lower House apportioned by population and an upper Senate weighted equally among the states were meant to ensure that no one state could boss the others around. This compromise informs the executive branch as well. The Electoral College uses bicameralism’s core compromise as its source, divvying up electoral votes according to a state’s number of seats in the House plus its two Senators. The Founders valued institutional balance over popular representation.
But the federal government’s current democratic shortcomings are far more troubling than the Founders had ever envisioned. This is because the number of seats apportioned within the House of Representatives—the only popularly-representative institution at the federal level—is no longer tied in any meaningful way to a state’s population. That is, the ratio of representative-to-population varies so dramatically that the House of Representatives no longer serves as a popular body. Without a proper population count, Californians become democratically disadvantaged in every part of the federal government.
This is not how it was supposed to be. The Founders had envisioned that the number of seats in the House would increase with population every ten years, with Congress adding new seats to track population growth. And so it went for roughly 150 years of the nation’s history. Then, in 1929, Congress passed the Permanent Apportionment Act, which capped House Membership at 435. The chief sponsors of that law were representatives from small, rural states that wanted to secure their privileged positions. And it worked.
Today, the least populous states exert exorbitant sway on American politics. Their populations are over-represented in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Executive branch. Note, for instance, that according to the 2010 Census, California had a population approximately 66 times that of Wyoming, yet California has but 53 representatives to Wyoming’s one. When measuring this disparity within the context of the Electoral College, it means that every presidential vote from Wyoming is worth roughly 362 percent of what each vote from California is worth.
That’s a problem. And Californians, which have constituted the largest population since at least 1970, are finally beginning to feel—if not understand—how ignored they are. Secession is still a radical solution, but it’s important to remember that Trumpism does not alone explain the “CalExit” movement. The roots are far deeper.