The (more than) 50 states and (fewer than) 72 counties

Something called The Jack News writes:

A recent lawsuit in the Golden State has brought attention to an interesting, and mostly ignored, problem: California is simply too large of a state. …

But the lawsuit raises an enticing possibility: Has the time come to add more stars to Old Glory by breaking up the union’s biggest states?

Splitting Up States

Most discussion about potential new states, focus on the longstanding desires of America’s two most populous non-state territories: The District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Statehood is a divisive question in Puerto Rico, however, and the status of the nation’s capital city raises complicated questions of sovereignty that could likely only be solved by constitutional amendment.

Creating new states out of existing ones, on the other hand, has a long history. The framers of the Constitution included a clause specifically allowing for it, with the consent of both Congress and the state or states concerned. Vermont, Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia were all carved out from existing states using this method.

Consent for West Virginia was, controversially, granted by the “restored” unionist government of Virginia during the height of the Civil War, but the legitimacy of that move has been long-settled. In each of the other cases, state legislatures responded to public demand by giving their consent, and Congress dutifully obliged. By exercise of democratic consent, America’s sovereign states can divide themselves, and sometimes they have.

Goldilocks States

Proposed movements to split existing states have a wide history; but not all such proposals have much chance of gaining traction. Adding a new member to the union requires not just the consent of the state being broken up, but also Congress, and Congress has usually had some broad principles in mind.

The first, and most important consideration, is population. As the United States expanded westward across the continent, Congress always required a minimum population before a territory could apply for statehood. Since becoming a state comes with two senators and at least one representative regardless of population, Congress is unlikely to ever approve a state less populous than the current 50thlargest, Wyoming (585,501 as of 2016). This also happens to be reasonably close to the size of the average U.S. House district, which is just over 700,000.

That rules out most of America’s territories outside of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, since the largest, Guam, has just under 160,000 residents. It likewise makes unlikely proposals like Superior, to make a new state from the upper peninsula of Michigan, or splitting a state like Colorado, which ranks 22nd in population of the states. The resulting states simply would not have enough people to justify the Constitution’s minimum federal representation.

The Big Five

Because of this aversion to low-population states, it is probable that only the nation’s largest and most populous states would be eligible for partition. Those also happen to be the states were movements for partition have been strongest, and a serious topic of debate over the years.

The five most-populated states and their 2016 population are, in order: California (39 million), Texas (27 million), Florida (20 million), New York (19 million), and Illinois (12 million). All are good potential candidates to carve out newer, smaller states.


California already hosts the oldest and most persistent partition movement, the would-be “State of Jefferson” that aspires to encompass far-northern California as well as adjacent parts of southern Oregon. There is also a persistent split between the central part of the state, centered around the Bay Area, and southern California centered around Los Angeles.

A recent proposal to split California into six states ended up failing and folding, largely because six was too ambitious a number, and the proposed borders too arbitrary. A state split into the three parts, however (with the northernmost possibly picking up part of Oregon) would neatly follow the existing political and cultural divisions.

Jefferson already has a suitable name, and several counties in the region have approved of it in referendums. There are many potential options for naming the other two; but for simplicity’s sake let’s call them North California and South California. Alternately, geographical features like “Sierra” or “Mojave” could provide each with a fresh start and a distinct identity.


Texas is unique in a lot of ways, but one of the most unusual is an obscure bit of trivia tucked into the joint resolution annexing the then-independent Republic of Texas in 1845. In order to sweeten the deal, Congress offered its pre-approval to for Texas to split itself into as many as five states.

Whether or not that offer still stands is unclear and debated among constitutional scholars. Texas has seen many partition proposals, but none ultimately overcame the state’s uniquely strong sense of identity.

The sprawling state encompasses many distinct regions; but the most common proposals have centered around the southwest portion of the state nearest the Mexican border. After the Civil War, it was briefly proposed to create a state named Lincoln from the parts of Texas between the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, roughly dividing the state in half.

A similar modern proposal, could perhaps result in a state of Rio Grande, extending from Brownsville to El Paso, and with its capital in San Antonio. The result would leave the more predominately Latino and Democratic parts of the state, free to govern themselves without being dominated by the rest of Texas’s overwhelming Republican supermajority.


Florida is another state where the cultural and political divide is stark between two regions: the predominantly conservative and Republican northern half of the state, versus the more Hispanic and Democratic south centered around Miami.

The idea of division has attracted enough support to be endorsed by county legislators in Ft. Lauderdale, and a handful of state legislators. It’s less clear where the border would be drawn. Which side would get Orlando, Tampa, and Cape Canaveral?

Central Florida is a culturally mixed region, politically purple, and home to some of the state’s most famous and valuable assets. While residents of the conservative panhandle on the one hand, and liberal Miami on the other, might relish being free of the other, there is no clear dividing line between them. Where exactly to draw the border, would probably end up being a contentious, and potentially unsolvable question.

If a fair border could be agreed upon, America’s most famous swing state might instead become one reliably red state and one reliably blue state. A repeat of the 2000 election fiasco, where a few hundred votes decided the state and thus the presidency, would be very unlikely.

New York

The Empire State has always housed two very distinct regions: the metropolis in and around New York City, and the rural bulk of the state’s landmass that has become known as Upstate New York.

On both sides of that divide, frustrations run high and proposals for a split have been persistent for decades. Upstaters chafe at the domination the city exercises by having the majority of the population, while residents of the five boroughs have little connection to places like Buffalo and Rochester.

If there is any metropolis that can make the case for its own statehood, it would be New York City’s eight million inhabitants. Extending that to include Long Island and the adjacent counties immediately north of the city, would push the population north of ten million.

Which half would get to keep the name “New York” could be debated, but to avoid confusion it would probably be best if that name stuck with the city that shares it. The rural rest of the state, perhaps picking a new name based on geography or the local Native American tribes, could govern itself without being overshadowed by the metropolitan neighbors. The state of Adirondack, or Mohawk, or Erie, or Hudson, could even put the question up to vote. After all, “upstate” would no longer work as a description.


Illinois suffers from a similar dynamic as New York: a single dominating metropolis at one end, split from the predominantly rural and politically conservative rest of the state. Chicago’s sense of identity is drastically distinct from the rest of Illinois, to the degree that the city’s distinctive flag is a much more common sight on its streets than Illinois’s banner.

Partition already has a degree of perennial support, with legislators from both Chicago and “downstate” introducing bills to that effect in the legislature. The political calculus is obvious: Democrats who dominate Chicago could firmly control any new state built around it, and Republicans consigned to permanent minority status in southern and central Illinois would instead have a solidly red state to govern.

It’s not just politics, of course. There is a real social and cultural divide between diverse and cosmopolitan Chicago, and the vast stretches of small towns and farmland that occupy the rest of Illinois.

A recent survey even found that Illinois was the only state where a majority of its residents said they would move to a different state if they could. They might just have that option, without having to move at all. Like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Illinois and Chicago could go through a velvet divorce that leaves both happier.

Two by two in the Senate

In the era before the Civil War, it was common practice to admit new free states and new slave states together in pairs, to maintain the precarious balance of power in the Senate. That is a practice that could be revived in the 21st Century, albeit in the much less troublesome context of partisan politics, instead of human bondage.

Past election results provide an easy and fairly reliable guide to guess the partisan tilt of any new state. Pairing likely-Republican and likely-Democratic states would be necessary to secure bipartisan buy-in at all levels of the decision, and solid majorities in favor in both the state and national legislatures.

The State of Jefferson, for example, would most likely give its two Senate seats as well as its electoral votes to the GOP. Splitting the rest of California in two, would produce two Democratic states from what had previously been one. Thus the net effect would be to add two Senators for both parties.

Florida, currently has one Republican Senator and one Democratic Senator. A split state would, most likely, send two from each party, for a neutral net effect. This same calculations can be played out elsewhere. Two new Republican Senators from upstate New York, could balance two new Democratic Senators from southwest Texas.

That kind of partisan horse-trading might sound unseemly, but it could be the necessary grease to arrive at a good policy result: state governments that are more representative, effectively providing localized laboratories of democracy. More states means more experimentation, and a stronger sense of federalism across the country.

There’s nothing magic about 50 states and 100 senators. It’s more than time for us to reopen the political debate about state sizes. Admitting six new states into the union, for the first time since 1959, would solve a multitude of state problems without upsetting our current national political balance.

David Blaska suggests the opposite, and has a map to match:

No county has ever merged with another. Now, apparently, Ozaukee and Washington Counties are raising the possibility. Both counties are populous (Ozaukee: 88,314; Washington: 134,296). Both counties are wealthy Republican exurbs of Greater Milwaukee. Which means they recognize the value of a dollar and are not in thrall to More and Bigger Gummint.

WTMJ-4 reports that Washington County, faced with budget troubles, is “thinking out of the box [including] dissolving county lines and completely merging with Ozaukee County.

“I know that if we go down this path, that guys like me don’t have a job but I’m good with that,” the Washington County administrator said.

His County has already saved $300,000 by merging its health department with Ozaukee and another hundred grand merging with the Waukesha County medical examiner.

The Washington County Administrator sent a letter to four of its neighboring counties, letting them know about their fiscal health status.

Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, 71 had been formed by 1901 when most people moved by horseback. The Menominee reservation was carved out of Oconto and Shawano counties in 1959 to create its own county, in an experiment that failed. It was intended to wean it off reservation status but 35% of the 4,533 population are mired in poverty. Florence County (population: 4,423)  and Menomonee (population: 4,232) are the two-least populous counties and have not a single incorporated village or city. For comparison purposes, Dane County is home to 531,273 (2010 Census).

The stickler is that all counties must provide the same array of services: law enforcement, roads, courts, health, general welfare, property records, etc. It’s a matter of economy of scale.

No county has ever merged, but they can

State law, specifically Chapter 59.08, provides for “consolidation” of counties, which is put to referendum. Let’s explore consolidation in low-population southwest Wisconsin, now divided among Grant (population: 52,214), Iowa (population: 23,654), and Lafayette (population: 16,753) for a combined 92,621. Lafayette was cleaved from Iowa County in 1846. You could argue: leave Grant alone. It’s large and fairly populous, but let’s go with the three-fer for this example.

County boards would take the lead. But if Lafayette’s county board remained silent, for instance, voters could petition for a referendum in their county. If its board still dragged its heels, a judge would appoint five citizens to work out the details with the merger partners. If the referendum on consolidation fails in any one of the counties, the whole deal goes down. Although long state law, no county has ever merged. Instead, most of our counties were cleaved from existing counties — originally just three in 1818: Crawford in the west, Brown in the east, and (encompassing the far north and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) Michilimackinac.

The hard, cold numbers may argue for consolidation but emotions could scuttle the whole thing. First, what to call the new, consolidated county? Nothing wrong with “Iowa-Lafayette” county unless the Lafayetters insist on “Lafayette-Iowa.” You see the problem! But the three-county merger we have imagined includes Grant County. That calls for a completely new, neutral name. “Driftless County”? “Lead County”?

Who gets the courthouse?

But it raises the question even more likely to sabotage merger than the consolidated county’s name: which city gets the county seat?

That question is particularly poignant in our three southwest county seats. Lancaster, Dodgeville, and Darlington have glorious old courthouses and, frankly, not a whole lot else going for them. Could some functions continue in each courthouse? The law specifies that the courts be consolidated at the county seat. But could the referendum specify all three as county seats? Our reading of 59.08 does not seem to rule out that possibility.

Existing sheriff’s facilities could continue as precinct houses. Dane County has three such sheriff’s precincts outside of Madison. If new, modern jails would required, the merged county would need build only one, not three.

We could find no authorization to carve up one county between two neighbors, even though it would seem to make sense in some cases.

i am a resident of one of those indigo-colored counties (or is that periwinkie?), which, I was told upon full-time arrival 29 years ago, was larger than the state of Rhode Island. Since Blaska concedes that maybe Grant County shouldn’t be part of Tri-Indigo County, reuniting Iowa and Lafayette counties (the latter was created from the former before statehood), that would create a county larger in land area than Grant County, and yet would be smaller in population.

An outstanding weekly newspaper carried Blaska’s column and the editor’s brilliant response. (Beginning with the possibly surprising fact that Wisconsin has fewer counties than all our neighbors.) Whether or not you like Blaska’s idea generally or map specifically, certainly this state needs fewer, not more, lines between providers of government services. My favorite (if you want to call it that) example is the Fox Cities, which runs roughly from Neenah to Kankauna and includes parts of three counties, four cities, four villages, seven towns and several police departments and fire departments, despite the fact that two houses next to each other in the same neighborhood could be in different municipalities. The Fox Cities is a demonstration of how, if not why, this state has 3,120 units of government, second only to Illinois.

Somewhere in the mists of time is probably evidence that I once proposed merging towns that include cities within the original town boundaries — such as the City of Ripon and the Town of Ripon given that the latter has a police department whose purpose is only to generate town revenue by writing speeding tickets. Of course, people live in towns instead of cities because the former has something the latter lacks in their opinion. Usually, lower taxes.

The tricky subject is getting politicians to voluntarily merge their units of government and thus lose some of their political power. It’s not very federalist to mandate, for instance, Blaska’s map(re)making. But having 3,120 units of government fits no one’s definition of good government.


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