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The 51st State: Making A 'Dull Election Year Quite Interesting'

Grace Hood

Off year elections typically don’t gather much attention. That’s not the case in 2013 where the nascent 51st State Movement has a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the idea of breaking away from the rest of Colorado on the ballot in 11 counties.

"The early indication is that there seems to be greater participation this year, particularly in those 11 counties," said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, a leading voice of the movement. "I get all sorts of questions and comments – both pro and con – about the whole issue. But it certainly has sparked a lot of conversation, and made quite frankly what was going to be a rather dull election year quite interesting."

Credit Weld County
Weld Commissioner Sean Conway

It has crossed some geography as well. While Moffat County in the northwest is theoretically looking to become part of Wyoming, the 10 counties in the northeastern part of the state would join to form the new state of “North Colorado.”

The idea seemed implausible when it was first hatched back in June, but the 51st state movement has gained a fair amount of interest and enough traction to actually get it on ballots.

Conway says the discussion has helped draw attention to important issues behind the movement, especially the sense of increasing alienation between rural counties and the state’s political center in Denver.

"Even if this vote is unsuccessful in some or all of the counties next Tuesday, we’ve made huge progress… in terms of pointing out what, essentially, started this," Conway said. "We’re now at the point where everybody, including the governor – who previously didn’t acknowledge the problem – acknowledges the problem. Legislative leaders acknowledge the problem."

If the vote does favor the effort, Conway says he expects more counties to join the breakaway movement.

"I think a lot of counties are sitting on the sidelines right now, saying 'let’s see what happens Tuesday,' " Conway said. "So I think you’ll see additional counties decide to become part of this."

If voters decline to approve the measure, Conway says they won’t press the issue. A few lawmakers are working on alternative ideas, including a plan to change the way rural, sparsely populated counties are represented at the capitol.

For Conway, the time and effort was worth it to get the message across to state leaders.

"I have no regrets at all," Conway said. "I think this was festering, out there. I think this allows people who feel disenfranchised in a representative form of government to express those feelings. And I think the very fact that the governor was just in Greeley, saying '…We’re going to be more attentive to the needs of rural Colorado' - this movement has been hugely successful in making that happen."

Update 1:08 p.m. - Weld County Commissioners have been publishing editorials in support of the 51st State Movement, Sean Conway's take focused on water rights on the new state. The most recent and final editorial came from Commissioner William Garcia, focusing on the potential finances of the new state [.pdf]. Garcia's editorial focuses on projected oil revenues, benefits of decentralization and a recent I-News report looking at the viability of a "North Colorado."

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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