The Slatest

Initiative to Split California Into Three States Blocked From November Ballot

The Golden Gate Bridge.
Under the proposed three-way split of California, San Francisco would become part of the new state of Northern California.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The California Supreme Court struck a major blow to one of this year’s boldest ballot initiatives, ruling unanimously Wednesday to remove Proposition 9—also known as “Cal 3”—from the November ballot. The initiative, sponsored by Silicon Valley billionaire venture capitalist Tim Draper, sought to split California into three separate states.

Proposition 9 is the second unsuccessful attempt in the past several years to break up the nation’s most populous state and the world’s fifth-largest economy. In 2014, Draper launched a campaign to split California into six states, but he failed to garner enough valid signatures to get his measure on the 2016 ballot as an initiative constitutional amendment.

Undeterred, Draper persisted in his state-splitting quest, and this year’s initiative did receive enough signatures to qualify for a place on the ballot as an initiative statue, which requires fewer signatures to get onto the ballot than a constitutional amendment. In California, voters have significant latitude to propose and enact state laws through ballot initiatives if they collect enough signatures from registered voters. For a ballot initiative statute, the number of signatures must equal or exceed 5 percent of votes cast for governor in the state’s last gubernatorial election. In Draper’s case, he needed 365,880 valid signatures—he gathered 402,468.

The Supreme Court said it usually allows Californians to vote on ballot measures before assessing any constitutional challenges. However, in this case, the justices noted that there were “significant questions regarding the proposition’s validity” and argued that the “hardships from permitting an invalid measure to remain on the ballot outweigh the harm potentially posed by delaying a proposition to a future election.”

The biggest question swirling around Proposition 9—and other measures like it—is whether California voters have the authority to break up the state, thereby abolishing its constitution and existing laws in the process of creating new states. It is also unclear whether Proposition 9 counts as a revision to the California constitution, which cannot be implemented through a ballot initiative. Instead, constitutional changes require receiving approval from two-thirds of the state’s legislature before securing a spot on the ballot.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came in response to a petition launched by the Sacramento-based environmental group the Planning and Conservation League. The organization opposed Proposition 9 because it saw the initiative as a threat to the state’s environmental regulations, which businesses sometimes criticize as unduly burdensome. Howard Penn, the executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, said Proposition 9 would have caused “chaos in [California’s] public services including safeguarding our environment … all to satisfy the whims of one billionaire.”

Draper, who has sunk more than $1.2 million into passing Proposition 9, criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling. “Apparently, the insiders are in cahoots and the establishment doesn’t want to find out how many people don’t like the way California is being governed,” Draper said in a statement. He also noted that the six justices “probably would have lost their jobs” under his proposed three-state plan.

California’s politicians vehemently opposed Draper’s far-fetched proposal. Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a Democrat, said that Proposition 9 would do more harm than good. “Putting this unpopular and flawed measure on the ballot in the first place was an act of political malpractice that gives direct democracy a bad name,” Núñez said in a statement on Wednesday.

Proposition 9 was unpopular with California residents, too. According to a statewide April poll, 17 percent of respondents said they supported the measure to split California into three states, while an overwhelming 72 percent of respondents opposed the initiative.

Draper wants to dismantle the state because he believes California is too large to run effectively, citing the state’s high taxes and cost of living compared with its poor public services. While Draper’s professed goal of improving California’s governance and standard of living is admirable, it is unclear whether breaking up California would serve as an effective remedy to any of the issues currently facing the state.