Can California really secede? It won’t be easy

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While the seemingly unlikely election of Donald Trump has prompted reactions spanning the emotional spectrum, it has spawned yet another interesting—if not altogether surprising—result: talk of California seceding from the United States.

But could such a “Calexit” succeed? And, if so, at what cost?

Inspired by “Brexit”

Supporters of California secession have drawn inspiration not only from the election results, but also from “Brexit”—the UK vote to pull out of the European Union. In fact, the Brexit outcome has inspired not only Calexit, but numerous other fill-in-the-blank-exits, including movements in New Hampshire, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas.

Of course, while Brexit can be seen as a model for grassroots political action, many critics also characterize it as populist folly, with negative social and economic impacts.

Let’s not give Brexit and/or Trump all the credit/blame. After Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, petitions to secede were filed in all 50 states. And then there was that whole Civil War thing, when 11 Southern states fought to leave the Union. The United States, in fact, has suffered a long history of dissatisfied citizens who’ve wanted their states to break free.

And we’re not alone. Canada, you may recall, had its brush with secession in 1980 and again in 1995, when citizens of Quebec forced the issue of independence. And while independence was voted down both times, the 1995 referendum was rejected by a slim 50 to 49 percent margin. The main reason that Quebecers opted to remain part of Canada stemmed from concerns about how Quebec’s economy would be affected—concerns likewise raised about a post-Brexit Britain.

Economics and other realities

As a country, California’s economy certainly would rank among the world’s largest, but the state does enjoy federal funding for necessities like infrastructure and social services (not to mention federal disaster relief), including Medicare, Social Security, and veterans’ pensions. An independent California would need to replace that lost funding.

While California is unquestionably an agricultural and manufacturing powerhouse, how would an independent California trade with its neighbors? What are the chances that the United States might impose restrictive tariffs on a breakaway California?

Moreover, how would California defend itself? The US military would be unlikely to provide such security for free. And would the United States be willing to part with national gems such as Yosemite National Park or the rest of the 45.8 percent of the state that is federally owned land?

Breakaway strategies

Of course, the Founding Fathers never intended for any of this. While Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution delineates how to gain admission to the United States, nothing in the Constitution specifies how to leave the Union.

There are, however, avenues to secession, as noted by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump:

Petition the White House: A Texas petition in 2013 garnered 125,746 signatures, obviously to no avail. Anyway, the Supreme Court already had weighed in on the issue long ago. In the 1869 case Texas v. White, the Court ruled that the secession of the Confederacy was fallacious, stating “The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible States.” So there.

Amend the Constitution: Not so easy, given the required approval of two-thirds of each branch of Congress or two-thirds of the states in a special constitutional convention, followed by ratification of three-fourths of the state legislatures. Just ask District of Columbia residents, whose futile efforts to gain statehood amid “taxation without representation” have failed in this regard.

Civil War: Not recommended.

Wait until the collapse of this imperfect union: Likely at some point in the future, if history is any guide. It might take a while, however.

California dreamin’

Yes California is a movement hoping to get a Calexit referendum on the state’s 2018 ballot. The referendum would change the state’s constitution to allow for California’s independence, and set the stage for a 2019 Calexit vote. And while Californians cannot vote to change the U.S. Constitution, a Calexit yes vote certainly would be a challenge to the Texas v. White precedent.

Still, if Yes California’s efforts succeed, and Californians do choose the path to independence, a Calexit is clearly no simple task. Would the Congress and the states provide the two-thirds and three-fourths majorities to amend the U.S. Constitution? And would the U.S. government even risk losing a major contributor to the nation’s economy?

Then again, naysayers scoffed at the possibility of a Brexit. And no major pre-election polls predicted a Trump victory. So for now, the push for a Calexit ballot measure goes on.