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Five rural counties in liberal Oregon vote in favor of leaving state for more conservative Idaho

A map of the expansion of Idaho's boundary proposed by the Oregon-based group Citizens for Greater Idaho. (Citizens for Greater Idaho)

Five rural counties in Oregon voted this week to press forward with a plan to leave the state and merge with neighboring Idaho, the latest move in a long-shot campaign by conservatives who say they’re fed up with Oregon’s left-leaning politics.

Voters in Baker, Grant, Lake, Malheur and Sherman counties — sparsely populated areas in the state’s eastern half — approved ballot measures Tuesday requiring local officials to consider redrawing the border to make them Idahoans.

Behind the push is a nonprofit called Citizens for Greater Idaho that argues the predominantly Republican parts of Oregon would be better served if Idaho incorporated them. The group’s president, Mike McCarter, says the expanded state he envisions would become the country’s third-largest in terms of landmass.

The votes in favor of the idea reflect a deepening of divisions between the state’s urban and rural populations that has become more pronounced in recent years. Democrats in the state have flocked to densely populated counties in the west, while Republicans have expanded their majorities in the east.

“This election proves that rural Oregon wants out of Oregon,” McCarter said in a statement. “If we’re allowed to vote for which government officials we want, we should be allowed to vote for which government we want as well.”

But while the proposal to ditch Oregon for Idaho may be popular in the Beaver State’s right-leaning enclaves, the chances of it actually becoming a reality are slim. Lawmakers in Oregon and Idaho would have to enact bills to redefine the states’ boundaries and redistrict their legislatures. They’d also have to muster the votes to override a potential veto from their respective governors. And then Congress would have to sign off on the move.

“Given the number of entities whose approval would be required, I just don’t think it will happen,” Norman Williams, a constitutional law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., said in an email.

Even if there was support among Democrats, Williams said, “no legislature or governor wants to be one (I think) who goes down in history as having given away half of the state’s territory to Idaho.”

The idea for a “Greater Idaho” began more than a year ago when McCarter, a 74-year-old former firearms instructor from La Pine, Ore., became disgruntled with the state’s liberal leanings. Across the border, he saw more ideological kinship.

Republicans in super-liberal Oregon are so fed up they want to become part of Idaho

His proposal for Idaho to swallow parts of Oregon’s south and east shares DNA with a long-standing push to create a “State of Jefferson,” including Northern California and southwestern Oregon. But asking to join an existing state is a slightly less difficult task than forming an entirely new one. McCarter points to a 1961 land transfer between Minnesota and North Dakota as evidence that it can be done.

McCarter has called the effort “a peaceful revolution” and a way “to gain political refuge from blue states” in interviews with the Oregonian. He claims that relocating the border could bring tax benefits to both states and ease some political gridlock in Oregon.

A signature-gathering campaign by McCarter’s organization paid off last year when Jefferson County in the central part of the state and Union County in the northeast voted to study the proposal. Other counties added referendums on the move to their ballots.

In an email to The Washington Post, McCarter acknowledged that his proposal faces major obstacles. But he said Tuesday’s vote showed that “when rural Oregon voters are educated on the arguments for and against joining Idaho, they vote in favor.”

Some conservative lawmakers in both states have spoken favorably about changing the map. State Rep. Barbara Ehardt, a Republican from Idaho Falls, said in a hearing last month that “there are some appealing things to Idahoans, at least in my estimation, to even consider this.” And Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) told Fox News last year that he understood why rural Oregonians would “like a little more autonomy, a little more control.”

But Idaho Democrats have called the idea outlandish and counterproductive.

“Cherry-picking deeply red counties to add to our state would make our politics even more dysfunctional,” state Rep. Lauren Necochea, of Boise, told The Washington Post. “I am heartened that this is a long shot from a legal and procedural standpoint, because the ramifications would be devastating.”

State Sen. Melissa Wintrow, a Democrat also from Boise, dismissed the proposal as a harebrained attempt to curry favor with GOP voters. “People are using this stuff for campaigns and not to help in any governmental way,” Wintrow said in an interview.

Wintrow said there are practical considerations that make expanding Idaho’s border a bad idea. The Gem State already has a small population — just shy of 1.8 million — and enlarging it could burden government programs, she said.

Moreover, she said, it’s not the right move for a country trying to heal political wounds.

“Folks are digging in, in different camps, and that’s not how to live a life,” she said. “We’re the United States of America. It’s time for us to take a deep breath, be honest and realistic about our history and where we’re going to go together.”

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