A ‘Greater Idaho’ Movement Sows Seeds of Secession in Eastern Oregon
‘Right now, the border between Oregon and Idaho does not make sense,’ says a spokesman of Greater Idaho.
Forget talk about “national divorce” or a civil war — the latest reaction to America’s political divide is secession. In November, two counties in eastern Oregon will vote on whether they want their elected officials to pursue seceding from the Beaver State and joining Idaho.
The Greater Idaho movement, which is pushing the ballot measures, seeks to move Oregon’s eastern border west to the Cascade Mountains in order to incorporate fifteen Oregon counties and two partial counties into Idaho. Since the movement’s founding in 2019, nine of these counties have already voted in favor of secession. Now Morrow and Wheeler Counties will have their say.
“Right now, the border between Oregon and Idaho does not make sense,” Greater Idaho’s spokesperson, Matt McCaw, tells the Sun. He says eastern Oregonians have more in common with Idahoans than they do with residents of Portland, from their shared high desert topography to how they earn a living through ranching and a reliance on natural resources to how they vote.
“There’s been this divide in Oregon — this rural-urban divide — for as long as I’ve been alive,” says Mr. McCaw. “It’s not so simple as these counties voted red, those counties voted blue. It’s the whole package: It’s culture, it’s values, it’s economy.”
A look at a 2020 election results map shows this divide clearly: A majority of Oregon counties — all of those contemplating secession — voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, yet President Biden won the state. Oregon is one of the most liberal states in the country because the cities of Portland, Eugene, and Bend, and the northwest coast contain a majority of the population and seats in the state house.
“Out here we feel we don’t get to make decisions about our government. Those decisions get made for us and forced on us,” Mr. McCaw says.
The Greater Idaho movement’s website decries “immoral blue state law,” onerous regulations, and high taxes, and says eastern Oregon joining Idaho would prevent the latter from “becoming more liberal.” Idaho voted 63.9% for President Trump in 2020, but the state has become a popular destination for Californians fleeing high taxes and restrictions during Covid.
It wasn’t one event that prompted eastern Oregonians seriously to consider secession — the State of Jefferson movement, which seeks to create a new state out of eastern Oregon and parts of northern California and eastern Washington, and longstanding conflicts over ranchers’ land use rights have existed in the Inland Northwest for decades.
More recent events have exacerbated the problem. Mr. McCaw mentioned the passage of Measure 110, which decriminalized the possession of small amounts of hard drugs, as a prime example of eastern Oregon’s perpetual impotence in the face of a coastal majority with different priorities.
“Eastern Oregon voted overwhelmingly against that,” he says of Measure 110, yet “there’s simply not the numbers of people in eastern Oregon to overcome what western Oregon decides.”
If the two ballot measures pass in November, Mr. McCaw says the next step is to bring the issue to the Oregon state legislature. He says he is also in talks with Idaho legislators. Earlier this year, Idaho Representative Barbara Erhardt introduced a resolution to discuss moving the border, citing eastern Oregon’s natural resources as “highly beneficial to Idaho.”
If both state houses agree on a new border, the change would still need to be ratified by Congress. Unlike previous secession movements, most notably the State of Jefferson movement, the Greater Idaho movement is not seeking to create a new state. Mr. McCaw says he hopes this makes it an easier sell for Congress, since simply changing the border wouldn’t affect the Senate balance, though population shifts could impact the electoral college.
The rural-urban divide animating this secession movement is not unique to Oregon. In the last decade, rural America has lost population, and with that, political power as a generally conservative block. A July 2022 University of Chicago poll found that 68 percent of rural voters agree the government is “corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me.”
Americans are increasingly geographically sorting themselves by political affiliation. The number of “super landslide” counties, where either the Democrat or Republican presidential candidate earned more than 80 percent of the vote jumped to 22 percent in 2020, from less than 10 percent in 2012.
Big blue cities are islands, particularly in red states, with purple suburban towns and neighborhoods “gravitating in a red-blue direction” of political homogeneity, says a professor in Political Science at the University of Maryland, James Gimpel. “Sixty or seventy years ago no one gave much thought to politics when considering residential relocation. Now more people do.”
Oregon’s Marrow and Wheeler Counties are not the only ones with secession on the ballot this November. In the largest county in the United States, California’s San Bernadino, voters will be deciding whether their elected officials should “advocate for all options to obtain the County’s fair share of state funding, up to and including secession from the State of California.”
In March, New Hampshire legislators rejected a bill proposing a constitutional amendment for the Granite State to secede from the United States. Secession is a popular idea among members of the Free State Project, a movement to create a libertarian homeland by attracting 20,000 liberty lovers to move to the state.
Some political scientists argue this “geographic polarization” leads to extreme partisanship, groupthink, and a hollowing out of the center. Mr. McCaw thinks America is heading toward a more federalized future, where state laws on anything from guns, drugs, and abortion, to education vary widely, and that those in the political minority will look to border changes as a solution. It may sound far-fetched, though less extreme than “national divorce” or the now-ubiquitous prognostications of an impending civil war.
Mr. Gimpel says the Greater Idaho plan is unlikely to succeed. “It’s hard to imagine a state legislative majority ever opting to cede some section of a state to another state,” he tells the Sun. “That doesn’t take away anything from the legitimate complaints the pro-secession group might have about representation in Salem.”
Mr. McCaw is more sanguine. “There is no reason this couldn’t happen by 2024,” he says. “Right now the biggest stumbling block is that it hasn’t ever happened.” If the movement prevails, Mr. McCaw thinks the idea of secession “will catch fire.”
On the Greater Idaho website there is a “Phase 2” map that shows Idaho expanding further to include parts of northern California and eastern Washington — a nod to the longstanding State of Jefferson movement.
“Once people see that it’s possible I think it will happen all over the country,” he says. “The idea really embodies all of America’s core beliefs about self-determination and government by the people for the people.”