NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

History Weighs On Colorado's 51st State Movement

Grace Hood

As challenging logistics and history loom, Colorado's 51st State Initiative has moved another step forward with finalized wording of a ballot question.

Of the ten counties, only Cheyenne County has confirmed that the question will be put to a public vote. The ballot language is offered for the other counties to use by just adding their respective names.

The wording reads as follows:

"Shall the board of county commissioners of Cheyenne County, in concert with the county commissioners of other Colorado counties, pursue becoming the 51st state of the United States of America?"

In July, Weld County commissioners held four public meetings to solicit feedback. Dr. Derek Everett, an adjunct professor of history at Colorado State University and Metropolitan State University, spoke at one of those meetings.

He’s writing a book on the creation of boundaries in the American West – and how secession played a role.

Credit Metropolitan State University
Dr. Derek Everett

“They’re all motivated by similar frustrations, by people feeling they’re not being heard, and whatever political or economic issues that dominate the state don’t speak to their local concerns,” says Everett.

One obstacle to statehood, Everett points out, is that publicity surrounding modern secession movements tends to focus on the ‘craziness’ factor, eclipsing whatever legitimate concerns may have sparked the move.

“In other secession movements when the big local or national media start paying attention, all the attention goes to secession, and not to the frustrations that are leading to that talk," says Everett. "The focus eventually turns into belittling and ridiculing these people and their frustrations.”

This isn't the first time talk of secession has been bandied about within Colorado. Everett says there are definite parallels between now and a movement in the San Juan Mountains in 1877 – when the state of Colorado wasn't even a year old.

"For the dozens and dozens of movements that have taken place, none of them have actually accomplished statehood."

Back then, silver miners felt that they didn't have a voice with the new state government. The movement didn't last long, as several legislators and officials from the region were elected shortly afterward.

“But the emotion was the same, that you feel as if you’re separated from the political center; that your concerns are being ignored; and this is a way to rectify that,” says Everett. The miners’ situation echoes what Weld commissioners have been saying – that the needs of rural Colorado aren't being represented at the capitol.

Everett says at the meetings he attended, commissioners seemed to recognize that the possibility of forming a new state is extremely remote.

“For the dozens and dozens of movements that have taken place, none of them have actually accomplished statehood,” notes Everett.

There are a lot of hurdles, all outlined in the Constitution. The new state must get the approval of Colorado’s governor and state legislature, as well as voter approval to change the boundaries. Then the federal government must agree to admit the new state.

It’s that last hurdle which presents a new dilemma if Congress doesn't act or approve, says Everett.

“Any part of the United States that is not actually a state is officially controlled by the federal government. There is every possibility that if these counties break away, convincing Colorado that they can leave, the federal government may not consider them capable of operating as a state yet,” says Everett. “They’d become a territory – and that would mean that the President would appoint the governor, would appoint the judges… My guess is that the federal government treating these counties as a colony would probably be even less satisfactory than being part of Colorado.”

If asked for advice, Everett says he wouldn't discourage counties from putting the secession question on the ballot – if only to allow people to express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box.

“But pushing it far beyond that I would caution against,” Everett added. “That’s when it becomes the story of secession, and not the story of the frustrations that lead to the talk. That’s where you lose the voice that you’re trying to find.”

A final decision is expected later in August on whether Weld and other counties will put the question on their ballots for voters to decide.

Related Content