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23 Counties And Counting: Downstate Separation Referendum Wins Favor In November Election

URBANA – One result of the November 2020 election in Illinois was 20 downstate counties passing an advisory referendum in support of forming their own state that leaves Chicago and Cook County behind. That makes a total of 23 counties where separation referendums have passed this year. (UPDATE: As of November 2022, the total is 26 counties and a portion of a 27th – JM 11/17/22)

Colin Cliburn organized the ballot questions, working under the banner of “The Illinois Separation”. Cliburn, a carpenter and flooring contractor from the town of Athens in Menard County, says voters have approved the referendums in every county where they were put on the ballot, by majorities ranging from 62-80%.

In Moultrie County, the referendum won with a 70% majority. Voters approved language that was similar to that in other counties: “Shall Moultrie County collaborate in discussions with the remaining 101 counties of the State of Illinois, with the exception of Cook County, the possibility of forming a new state and ultimately seeking admission to the Federal Union as the 51st state, pursuant to the provisions of the United States Constitution?”

The question was placed on the ballot by the Moultrie County Board (citizen petitions have put it on the ballot in some counties). Moultrie County Board Chairman and local Republican Party leader David McCabe says the referendum helps illustrate how downstate residents are unhappy with how they’re treated by Chicago Democrats.

But McCabe says it’s too soon for his county to do what the referendum asks for: discuss separate statehood with other counties.

I don’t think, at this point, the Moultrie County Board’s going to be engaging in any direct conversation with any other county boards,” said McCabe. “We may at some point in the future. But it’s just still a very early movement.”

But Cliburn says he hopes to hold a convention this winter, where delegates from participating county boards can meet to discuss how to advance the concept of separate statehood.

Cliburn says downstate Illinois should split away from Chicago so it won’t have to endure the problems McCabe touched on, including taxes and other financial policies imposed on the rest of the state by Chicago area Democrats who dominate the General Assembly.

Cliburn says his goal is for voters in many more counties to pass separation referendums. He says if they’re passed in enough downstate counties, lawmakers won’t be able to ignore them.

“If 75 counties came out with 75 percent, I really honestly think that the Illinois state legislature might just let us go,” said Cliburn. “If you read the accounts of how Maine split from Massachusetts, it was by shock and awe.”

Maine was a district of Massachusetts (although separated from the rest of the state by New Hampshire) until 1819, when state lawmakers voted to allow separate statehood for the territory. Maine officially became a separate state in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise.

So far, voters have passed referendums supporting separation from Chicago in 23 counties, mostly in southeastern Illinois. Those counties are: Bond, Christian, Clark, Clay, Crawford, Cumberland, Edwards, Effingham, Fayette, Hancock, Jasper, Jefferson, Johnson, Lawrence, Marion, Massac, Moultrie, Pope, Richland, Shelby, Wabash, Wayne and White.

(UPDATE: Since this story was first released, separation referenda have passed in Edgar County in April 2021, and in Brown and Hardin Counties and a portion of Madison County in November 2022.- JM 11/17/22)

Cliburn says the referendum has also been approved to go on the ballot in Edgar and Hardin Counties, but were left out of this year’s election due to county clerk errors. He expects the question to get on the ballot in those counties in 2021 or 2022.

Cliburn’s referendum campaign is not the only effort to create a separate state for downstate Illinois. State Representative Brad Halbrook (R-Shelbyville) sponsored a resolution last year calling on Congress to “declare the City of Chicago the 51st state of the United States of America and separate it from the rest of Illinois.” Halbrook cited disagreement between Chicago and downstate voters on abortion, gun ownership, immigration and other issues. The proposal languished in the House Rules Committee without coming up for a vote. But the effort led to the creation of another organization promoting downstate statehood, New Illinois. Halbrook serves on the organization’s advisory board.

(CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to show that White County, not Whiteside County, is among the counties where voters have passed referenda in support of separating from Chicago and Cook County. As of this writing, Whiteside County in northern Illinois is not among the counties that have approved such a referendum. Voters in White County approved their referendum in the November 2020 election. – JM 11/17/22)

Jim Meadows is a reporter for Illinois Newsroom. Follow him on Twitter: @WILLJim Meadows

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Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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