Among the more interesting outcomes in the 2020 election was what took place in my home state of Illinois, where multiple counties voted overwhelmingly to explore seceding and forming a new state.
Several news outlets have inaccurately reported this as an effort to eject Chicago and Cook County from the State of Illinois. I’m not sure there’s even a legal mechanism to do so. However, there is a legal mechanism for several counties to vote form their own state, which must be approved by both the state legislature and the U.S. Congress.
If you read the text of the referendum, its intention is clear:
This text on the ballot in Shelby County, Illinois reads:
“Shall Shelby County collaborate in discussions with the remaining 101 Counties of the State of Illinois, with the exception of Cook County, about the possibility of forming a new state and ultimately seeking admission to the Federal Union as the 51st State, pursuant to the provisions of the United States Constitution?”
The text asks whether voters want to discuss with the remaining counties “the possibility of forming a new state…” and entering as the 51st State. It says nothing about removing Cook County from Illinois.
The proposition passed in Shelby County with 72.6% of the vote: 8,470 to 3,189, with over 80% voter turnout. Voters in Christian, Clay, Crawford, and Moultrie counties also voted overwhelmingly in favor.
The effort was spearheaded by a group called New Illinois, which according to their website “envisions a NEW State free from a tyrannical form of government, where residents will be able to experience a government representing their Constitutional Rights.”
Rural and downstate Illinois residents have long bristled over the outsized influence of Chicago on state politics. In recent years, that sense of separation has become even more pronounced, with the Chicago area increasing throwing its support behind the Democratic Party and the rest of Illinois (with the exception of several large cities) leaning heavily Republican. Downstate Illinois has significant cultural, economic, social, and political differences with the Chicago area.
Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, known as the “Admissions Clause,” lays out the process for forming new states out of existing states: “no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
The last time this happened was in 1863 when West Virginia seceded from Virginia during the American Civil War.
Critics allege downstate Illinois wouldn’t survive without the revenue generated by Cook County. The Chicago metropolitan area generates a majority of Illinois’ GDP and therefore its state tax dollars, but on the other hand, downstate Illinois with its lower population might not need all that revenue. Illinois minus Cook County would have a population of around 7.5 million, roughly the same as Washington or Arizona.
A few years ago, I would have dismissed this idea as an interesting thought experiment; a fringe concept without any popular support. But just a few days ago, a large majority of voters in counties where this referendum was proposed voted in favor of it. Who knows where this will lead. Perhaps nowhere, but it will be interesting to see what develops.