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Despite Madison County votes, expert says break-off from state unlikely

Voters in three Illinois counties have joined a movement to leave the state, but a legal expert says this would be “almost impossible” to do.

Two Madison County townships, along with Brown and Hardin counties, voted in the Nov. 8 midterm elections to explore ways to leave Illinois. They joined 24 other counties that have voted on referendums to find a route for secession, 23 of which voted to do so after the 2020 elections, according to NBC Chicago. Most of those counties lie in the southeastern part of the state.

In Madison County, Leef Township and New Douglas Township voters were asked to consider separating from Chicago to form a new state. Both advisory referendums were overwhelmingly approved, 213-72 in Leef Township and 141-65 in New Douglas.

According to Illinois Separation, one of multiple grassroots movements advocating the split, the idea was approved by 74% of Brown County voters.

John Jackson, visiting professor for Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said it would be “almost impossible” for these counties to leave Illinois. He said a secessionist movement like this had never been pulled off before, pointing to other movements in upstate New York and northern California as examples.

“One could argue about West Virginia leaving Virginia at the start of the Civil War,” he said, “and that was an unusual circumstance and they were given unusual leeway to do so, given that Virginia had seceded.”

For any counties to leave the state, Jackson said, it would take both the Illinois General Assembly allowing them to secede and an act of Congress to legitimize the new state, events which he said were unlikely to happen.

“Congress is not going to get into the business of creating new states,” he said.

The current movement is not the first time a portion of Illinois has threatened to leave. In the 1960s and ’70s, frustrated residents of western Illinois satirically declared themselves the “Republic of Forgottonia” as a protest against highways and infrastructure avoiding the region. While Forgottonia never actually left, its legacy persists, such as the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website calling itself “Unforgettable Forgottonia.”

Jackson said the present-day secessionist movement was a similar way for people to vent their dissatisfaction with the political landscape. He called it an example of “symbolic politics.”

“They’re making a symbolic gesture that they know, good and well, is not going anywhere in the legal and constitutional sense(s),” Jackson said.

Collin Cliburn, founder of Illinois Separation, told the Chicago Tribune in 2019 that this kind of politics works best when it taps into “deep-seated, already existing values.”

“If you’re rural, you’re supposed to think one way. If you’re urban, you’re supposed to think another way,” he said.

While Cliburn had grown up hearing his father speak about secession, the Tribune said he started supporting secession in 2017 due to the issue of gun control.

GH Merritt, chairwoman of fellow separation movement New Illinois, told WMAY-FM in 2020 that her group was seeking to “kick ourselves out to become the 51st state” primarily because of a perceived lack of representative government.

“We’re dominated by a county with 40% of the people,” she said. “The other 60% have things imposed on them that may be helpful to a major urban area, but they are not helpful to a rural area.”

New Illinois made a formal declaration of independence on Oct. 17, 2020, and proceeded to post nine grievances with the state over a course of weeks at the end of 2020 and start of 2021.

Jackson said politicians in the region used secession as a way of “running against Chicago” to curry favor among downstate voters. He said this had been a talking point for decades in the area.

“It’s got some political potency,” he said. “They believe they’re mishandled and mistreated and don’t want to have any part with Chicago and that we’d be better off without Chicago, as they see it.”

If the counties got their way, however, Jackson said “it would be a disaster for southern and central Illinois,” as Chicago financially supports both regions more than people realize. A 2018 paper penned by him and SIU Summer Institute Administrative Director John L. Foster found that for every $1 paid to the state in tax, central Illinois received about $1.87, with southern Illinois getting $2.83.

Meanwhile, the paper said Cook County got about 90 cents of every tax dollar, with the outlying suburban counties getting back about 53 cents. Jackson said the flow of money in Illinois traveled from the northeastern part of the state to the southern and western portions.

Despite this, downstate residents who were surveyed for the paper felt underrepresented by the Illinois, with 66% of downstate respondees saying the government did not equally distribute resources across the state.

“It’s a very good deal for those of us downstate (and a) very bad deal for northeast Illinois,” Jackson said. “But a great number of people don’t want to believe that.”

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