What Is Calexit: The Secession of California?

"Calexit" refers to the secession of California from the United States, after which it would become an independent country. The word is a portmanteau meaning "California exit," which is based on similar coinages such as Grexit and Brexit. The term has come to the fore in the wake of Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election – Hillary Clinton won the state of California with 61% of the vote – though it is not the state's first independence movement.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll published after Trump's inauguration in January 2016 showed 32% of Californians supporting Calexit, up from 20% in 2014. 

Calexit is being spearheaded by Yes California, which describes itself as "the nonviolent campaign to establish the country of California using any and all legal and constitutional means to do so." The campaign plans to place an initiative on the 2018 ballot which, if passed, would call for an independence referendum the following year.

Understanding Calexit: The Secession of California

Present-day California formed part of the Mexican province of Alta California until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in May 1846. The next month, 30 American settlers seized a Mexican garrison in Sonoma and declared an independent republic. An updated form of their flag emblazoned "California Republic," is currently the flag of the state. The republic never performed any administrative functions as a government and lasted less than a month before U.S. Navy Lieutenant Joseph Revere landed at Sonoma and raised a Union flag. 

Present-day arguments for California sovereignty center on the state's large population and economic power. At $2.46 trillion, California's gross domestic product (GDP) was larger than France's ($2.42 trillion) in 2015. Using World Bank figures, California would be the world's sixth-largest economy, if it were an independent country. The state was home to 39.1 million people in July 2015, according to the Census Bureau, slightly more than Uganda; as an independent country, it would be the world's 36th most populous. Cultural issues, while more muted, have featured in independence rhetoric, particularly as they relate to environmental issues.

Yes California was known as Sovereign California until the summer of 2015, when its leader, New York-born Louis Marinelli, submitted an initiative to the California Attorney General calling for an independence referendum in November 2020 and every four years from then on. That document compared California's incorporation into the Union to the U.S.'s annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1898.

Since its rebranding, the organization has changed tack and dropped the "military annexation" argument. In a pamphlet posted to its website, the group argues that "California could do more good as an independent country than it is able to do as a just a U.S. state" and enumerates nine areas in which California would be better off as an independent country:

  • Peace and security "Not being a part of [the U.S.] will make California a less likely target of retaliation by its enemies."
  • Elections and government "California's electoral votes haven’t affected a presidential election since 1876."
  • Trade and regulation "The United States is dragging California into the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement which conflicts with our values."
  • Debt and taxes "Since 1987, California has been subsidizing the other states at a loss of tens and sometimes hundreds of billions of dollars in a single fiscal year."
  • Immigration "Independence means California will be able to decide what immigration policies make sense for our diverse and unique population, culture, and economy, and that we'll be able to build an immigration system that is consistent with our values."
  • Natural resources "Independence means we will gain control of the 46% of California that is currently owned by the U.S. Government and its agencies."
  • The environment "As long as the other states continue debating whether or not climate change is real, they will continue holding up real efforts to reduce carbon emissions."
  • Health and medicine "California can join the rest of the industrialized world in guaranteeing health care as a universal right for all of our people."
  • Education "We will be able to fully fund public education, rebuild and modernize public schools, and pay public school teachers the salaries they deserve."

Is Secession Legal?

The U.S. Constitution does not directly address the issue of secession; Article IV limits itself to the accession of new states and the division or fusion of existing states. The beginning of the document contains the phrase, "in order to form a more perfect Union," which is often interpreted to mean a "more perfect Union" than the "perpetual Union" described in the Articles of Confederation.

There are two major precedents for territorial secession in U.S. history, beginning with the American colonies themselves declaring independence from Britain. The Declaration of Independence frames its arguments in terms of universal rights, rather than British law. In practice, the colonies won their independence through war.

The second is the secession of the Southern states in 1861, which sparked the Civil War. The Confederacy was defeated on the battlefield, rather than the courts, although subsequent legal issues created by the attempt at independence led the courts to express an opinion on the legality of secession. In Texas v. White, a dispute over a bond sale by the Confederate States, the Supreme Court ruled in 1869 that Texas' secession had not been legal. According to the majority opinion, entry into the Union formed "an indissoluble relation"; it was "final," "perpetual," and left "no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States."

In other words, the Supreme Court appears to recognize the legitimacy of independence through armed struggle, although that hardly matters; the outcome of the war is the deciding factor regardless of a court's opinion. 

Nor does it matter for Yes California, which is avowedly nonviolent. The "consent of the States" provides an opening, however, according to Marinelli. In a blog post from March 2016, he interprets the Supreme Court's opinion to mean that California can propose a constitutional amendment allowing it to secede. If that is approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, and 38 states ratify it, California can become independent. Alternatively, two-thirds of the delegates of a constitutional convention could approve the amendment, which would then have to be ratified by 38 states. 

Whether that interpretation passes legal muster is uncertain. In any case, it is a long shot to get two-thirds of the House and Senate – not to mention legislatures from two-thirds of the states – to agree on anything, particularly the secession of the country's largest state, economically speaking.

Giving It a Go

Undaunted, Yes California submitted a proposed ballot measure to the California attorney general's office on November 21, 2016, hoping to get an independence vote on the ballot in 2019. The measure would repeal Article III, Section 1 of California's constitution ("The State of California is an inseparable part of the United States of America, and the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land") and pose the question to voters, "Should California become a free, sovereign, and independent country?" According to the proposed ballot measure, 50% of registered voters will need to turn out for it to be valid, and 55% will have to mark "yes."

Yes California's vice-president and co-founder, Marcus Ruiz Evans, told the Los Angeles Times that 13,000 volunteers have agreed to collect signatures. According to Ballotpedia, 585,407 names are required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Yes California's website says its will need over a million signatures, with six months to collect them.