What the battle over redrawing state borders says about our politics
The plan to turn Idaho into a conservative megastate including rural parts of Oregon, Washington and California shows the extent of our rural-urban political divide.
The urban-rural political divide defines our politics today, and in the Pacific Northwest, some think the state boundaries should be redrawn to better reflect it.
“Instead of starting a new state, we’re just asking to realign the border, because borders are arbitrary, they’re not cast in stone, they can be changed,” said Mike McCarter, president of Citizens for Greater Idaho, who is pushing for some rural eastern Oregon counties to join Idaho.
McCarter’s proposal would transfer all or part of 22 rural Oregon counties to Idaho to form a conservative megastate in the West, plus a more ambitious plan that includes all or part of eight California counties and five Washington counties. The expanded Idaho would be larger in size than every state but Alaska and Texas, a bright red counterbalance to the progressive, coastal Oregon, Washington and California.
“People are hearing about it,” McCarter said. “People are saying we want to have a chance to vote on it. We want to see some changes in rural Oregon.”
Residents in seven counties in rural eastern Oregon have voted to show support for joining Idaho since last November. The votes don’t actually do anything, though, because modifying state boundaries requires approval of the states and U.S. Congress, but they reflect popular support among voters for the idea.
An urban comeback
Like some of the governor recall backlash, the border movement is a product of the pandemic. McCarter is critical of Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s mask mandates and public health measures, and one Idaho state lawmaker cited public unrest in Portland last year as a reason rural Oregonians would want to join her state.
“In our constitutional republic, you cannot just set up a CHOP zone,” said Idaho Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, referencing the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone set up last summer.
“If you cannot seek redress of your government that is in your state because they’re adhering to a lawless form of government, then I believe you have every right seek redress with the next closest government,” she said. “In this case, it would be the state of Idaho.”
The proposal would free conservative, rural Oregonians from the influence of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s liberal coastal population center, and bolster Idaho’s already dominant conservative politics at a time when some worry the fast-growing state is attracting out-of-state liberals to Boise.
“The way I look at it is we certainly would gain many more like-minded people,” Ehardt said.
Today’s urban-rural divide is decades in the making, the result of New Deal infrastructure projects, interstate highways, and government programs that attracted jobs to metro areas in the Mountain West and South, according to Guian McKee, associate professor in Presidential Studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
There’s been a sorting by economics and college education into metropolitan areas, he said, which has been followed by economic opportunities and a perceived dominance of the culture that breeds resentment.
In other words, cities have made a comeback, and that’s had political and cultural implications.
“If you go back 20 years and look at some of the underlying voting patterns, you tended to see big swaths of the country voting the same way,” he said, but today, some states are seeing more competitive elections, like Georgia. “That’s really because the metropolitan areas are now competitive in a way that they just really weren’t 20 years ago.”
The political friction between city and countryside plays out nationwide, in states like Texas, Nevada and Virginia. In Illinois in 2019, some Republican lawmakers sponsored a resolution to make Chicago the 51st state as a statement of frustration at the Democratic city’s political influence.
What could be lost
Ehardt, the Idaho lawmaker, envisions a redrawn Idaho setting off a flurry of new state boundary proposals. Though the bar for actually changing state boundaries is high, she thinks it can happen.
“I absolutely believe that this will not only happen in Oregon, but I believe you’re going to see it happening throughout the rest of the United States, actually very soon,” she said. “I heard from other states, a lot of eyes are on this movement.”
Such a movement could ostensibly carve America into a union of vast rural super-states that vote Republican, densely populated city-states that vote Democratic, and several California states, which has been proposed in the past.
But drawing our borders based on partisanship won’t solve our problems, said McKee.
“I think it goes even more than it won’t solve our problems,” he said. “I think it’s actually a rejection of some core democratic principles.”
McKee worries the impulse to redraw state borders based on politics suggests “we’ve lost some of the ability to disagree.”
“That’s really dangerous, I think, for democratic life,” he said.
He hopes it inspires people to ask why their fellow citizens are upset and how we can build connections to reduce polarization.
“These kinds of movements, I don’t think they’re a serious threat to succeed anytime soon,” he said. Still, “they should be concerning to really all Americans.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly attributed a statement speculating on specific state border changes to Idaho Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls. She said a redrawn Idaho border could set off a flurry of new state boundary proposals without describing specifics.