California took one step closer to secession last week, with the secretary of state approving a group’s request to collect signatures in order to put the issue on the 2018 ballot.
While this is a bold move, you might feel a bit of déjà vu. Remember in 2009 when, following the election of another polarizing president, the then-governor of Texas rallied against Washington, D.C., while a crowd chanted, “Secede! Secede!” True, the Texas Nationalist Movement made no official moves, but “CalExit” is just another ill-fated response to partisan politics – right?
While it’s reasonable to expect some discontent when a state’s dominant political party loses to a divisive contender, that alone is not what motivates something as radical as secession. Instead, these movements bubble up because of a deep feeling of political disenfranchisement. And in the case of heavily populated states like Texas and California, these feelings reflect realities. To be sure, Californians and Texans are systematically underrepresented in every part of the federal government.
This issue is not exactly new. The Founders fought hard over how to design the government’s legislature. Those from small states like New Jersey wanted equal representation, while those from large states like Virginia wanted popular representation. The Founders compromised on a bicameral legislature, with two senators for each state in the Senate and congressmen apportioned by state population in the House of Representatives. Note that the Executive, too, draws on this compromise, apportioning electoral votes based on the sum of these two figures.
Consequently, the House is the linchpin that keeps the federal government popularly representative. Indeed, it is the only federal institution that counts individuals at all. How seats are divvied up is critical to ensuring the democratic legitimacy of the federal government, especially in the eyes of large states like California and Texas. Unfortunately, this is where the system has broken down.
Note that although the Constitution is silent on how to apportion seats, early Congresses routinely added representatives every 10 years to match population growth. But in 1920, because of a huge rural to urban population shift, traditional reapportionment would have caused many small-state congressmen to lose their seats. The solution? They skipped it. And when it came time to reapportion seats again in 1929, they passed the Permanent Reapportionment Act. That law essentially locks House seats at the number established by the 1910 census: 435.
This deliberate power grab meant that small-state citizens became overrepresented not just in the Senate and the Executive, as the Founders had anticipated, but in House as well. Without the ability to add new seats, the population-to-representative ratio grew increasingly lopsided over the 20th century.
Today, for instance, although California has a population about 66 times that of Wyoming, it has just 53 representatives to Wyoming’s one. Likewise, Texas, which has roughly 55 times more people, has just 45 seats. Measured within the Electoral College, this means that a Wyomingite’s vote is worth more than 360 percent of a Californian’s or Texan’s. That level of disparity is palpable.
That Californians and Texans are among the most democratically disadvantaged states does much to explain their respective dabbles in secession. Sure, figures like Donald Trump as well as unique historic, economic and cultural factors play a role. But what motivates something as extreme as “CalExit” is a federal system that robs Californians of their fair say in national affairs.
Make no mistake; California’s grievances are legitimate. And whether they are rectified through traditional or more radical means, the issue will not be long ignored.
Richard Jolly is a research fellow at NYU School of Law and a member of the California Bar. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.