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Everything you need to know about Three Californias

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Under November ballot initiative, San Francisco would join “Northern California”

Highway One along the California Coast on a clear sunny day. Photo by haveseen/Shutterstock

In the November election, Californians will vote on Cal 3 ballot measure—i.e., whether or not to split the Golden State into three separate states.

Yes, really.

Venture capitalist Tim Draper is behind the so-called “Three Californias” initiative, which Curbed LA, LA Times, and other outlets report has exceeded the 365,000 voter signature threshold to qualify for the ballot. For the record, over 10,000 of those signatures came from San Francisco; zero came from Alameda County.

Under the measure, San Francisco would become part of “Northern California,” a new state stretching from the present Oregon border to Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Merced, and Mariposa Counties in the south.

“Southern California“ would stretch from the Mexico border up to Mono, Madera, and Fresno counties at its northern tip.

And a third state, earning the original “California” moniker, would be composed of Monterey, San Benito, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Venture, and San Luis Obispo counties.

Rendering via Sacramento Bee

What to make of all of this? Here’s a quick rundown of the most pressing questions ahead of November’s vote:

  • Can we really do this? Technically yes, although it’s a triple long shot. Assuming voters go in for the three Californias plan, Article 3, Section IV of the U.S. Constitution specifies that Congress would have to approve the bid and the president would have to sign off on it. Creating new states is tricky, because federal lawmakers don‘t like the idea of upsetting the balance on Capitol Hill with a lot of new Senate and Congressional seats—hence why Puerto Rico hasn‘t made the cut despite overwhelming popular support. The Constitution Center notes that breaking a state up into smaller states has happened only five times, most recently in 1863.
  • Is there any chance of this passing? Well, weirder things have happened. But the most recent polling in April showed that only 17 percent of likely voters support the idea. While the attention Cal 3 ballot measure is receiving now might up that number, the fact that California has weathered all past attempts at division seems telling.
  • What’s the point? In an April press release, Draper touted “Three Californias” as a way to empower communities: “Cal 3 is committed to solving California’s most pressing issues, including the state’s failing school systems that impact more than 6 million kids, highest-in-the-nation taxes, deteriorating infrastructure and strained government. Partitioning California into three states would empower regional communities to make better, fairer and more sensible decisions for their citizens.”
  • Who’s Tim Draper? Another Silicon Valley venture capitalist who seems more like a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Among other things, he made a mint investing in Bitcoin, Tesla, Skype, and Hotmail (yes, Hotmail—he’s been at this a while). But if he keeps this up, he’ll be forever remembered as the “Three Californias” guy.
  • Didn’t they try this a couple of years ago? In 2014 Draper pushed a “Six Californias” plan that didn’t make the cut for a vote. Back then San Francisco was part of a proposed mini-state somewhat dismissively dubbed “Silicon Valley.”
Draper‘s failed “Six Californias” plan.
Image by Mliu92/Wikicommons
  • But really, what would happen if we did this? First, a tsunami of lawsuits, since nobody has ever actually proposed a new state by ballot initiative before. Assuming those cleared up and the federal government unexpectedly gave the go ahead to the split, the California Secretary of State office’s analysis says that the move would unleash a host of problems over tax rates, public schools, health services, the prison system and above all water rights, perhaps taking decades to resolve:

While this measure anticipates action to divide California’s debts and secure congressional approval within two years after voter approval, it would be difficult for this timeline to be put into practice. When West Virginia separated from Virginia, court cases related to the states’ debts persisted for about 50 years. Some of the legal and practical issues of splitting up California suggest there is a high likelihood that the process would take many years to complete.