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6 Colorado counties voted to form a 51st state. Now what?
North Colorado probably won't happen. But that doesn't mean that Colorado's secessionist push is useless.
 
At least they made themselves heard...
At least they made themselves heard... (Facebook/The 51st State Initiative)

News coverage of Election Day 2013 has been dominated by two big mayoral races — Marty Walsh (D) eked out a win in Boston and Bill de Blasio (D) buried his opponent in New York by a ridiculous 73 percent to 24 percent margin — and the high-profile gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia.

Yes, it's interesting to examine what Gov. Chris Christie's (R) landslide re-election means for blue New Jersey and the 2016 presidential race, and what Terry McAuliffe's (D) narrow win signifies for quintessential swing state Virginia and ObamaCare.

But let's not forget: Many of the most interesting electoral results on Tuesday happened outside of the I-95 corridor.

Or at least at the tail end of it, like Portland, Maine, which legalized recreational marijuana. So did three cities in Michigan: Lansing, Jackson, and Ferndale.

Then there's Colorado, which, along with fellow Western states like Nevada and Washington, is emerging as a real laboratory of American self-governance. Colorado voters on Tuesday handily approved some hefty taxes on the sale and production of marijuana, which the state approved for recreational use in 2012. And in six Colorado counties fed up with all this social fomentation, voters asked to leave Colorado and form their own state.

Here's CBS News' report on the movement to formally create two Colorados:

Eleven counties in the rural northern part of Colorado considered ballot measures ordering their county commissioners to takes steps to secede from Colorado, with 10 proposing to form their own state, North Colorado, and the other one asking to join Wyoming. No state has successfully broken away since West Virginia cleaved itself from Virginia in 1862 — and that was during the Civil War, against Virginia's wishes.

That's the primary obstacle to North Colorado becoming a reality: Colorado's legislature would have to approve the secession, or barring that, voters would have to force the issue with a ballot initiative. And even if that happened, the U.S. Congress would have to ratify the move, creating two reliably conservative new Senate seats. Neither scenario is likely. The last state to willingly give up territory for a new state was Massachusetts, which let Maine go its own way in 1820.

But then again, the proponents of creating North Colorado didn't really expect to secede. They say they wanted to highlight their discontent with the legislation coming out of the Democratic-controlled legislature and statehouse, and this was the best way to get Denver's attention.

In that sense, the secessionists have already "scored a measure of success, thanks to what might be called the 'squeaky wheel' principle of politics," says Jake Grovum at Pew's Stateline. Even though it only passed in about half the 11 counties and faces long odds, the 51st state initiative "gained a measure of legitimacy for one simple reason: Colorado's leaders are taking it seriously."

"It's like if you have five kids, and one of them starts crying, you're going to run over and see what's wrong," Michael Trinklein, who wrote a book on state secession history, tells Stateline. "That's exactly what they want, and it sounds like they're getting it."

Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast is troubled by this "new and lamentable trend that I think may be with us for a long time in American politics." Sure, Colorado secessionists won't get their state, he says, but this is the latest sign of "the culture-ization of politics, the trumping of shared culture over shared political traditions and agreements that go back generations."

In a place like Colorado, the clustering has been reinforced by the immigration of lots of college-educated hipsters to the state. It has grown from a population around 3 million in 1990 to around 5 million, and the newer arrivals have moved to or near the cities and have plainly made Colorado a more Democratic and liberal state.... Culturally, there's little doubt about it. Colorado is two states. It's not the only one, either.... The same could easily happen, and I think will, in virtually any state where one or two big cities hold most of the population. [Daily Beast]

Tomasky predicts that, with Republican support, we might just get a 51st state in the next 15 years. Caitlin Dewey at The Washington Post is more sanguine. "Secession sounds like a big, radical move," she says, but Colorado's instigators are "actually joining a long, long list of disaffected (and ineffectual) separatists who have schemed to become the 51st state."

Secession movements, it turns out, are actually pretty common — nearly every state has had at least one. (Just try searching your state + "secession" on Facebook, recommends the Middlebury Institute, a zealous booster of the secessionist cause.) The real question is why anyone bothers. [Washington Post]

Secessionists have an answer to that question. "The heart of the 51st State Initiative is simple," proponent Jeffrey Hare tells The Denver Post: "We just want to be left alone to live our lives without heavy-handed restrictions from the state Capitol." But given the futility of their crusade, the more precise answer may be that by having the media report on their disenchantment, secessionists get all the upside of rattling sabers but none of the responsibility of setting up and running a new state.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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