CALIFORNIA’S boundaries were established in 1849, paving the way for it to join the United States the following year. Its admission to the union as a free state was one of many compromises made before the civil war between states that allowed slavery and those that did not. At the time, much of California was considered uninhabitable, compared with lands further east. It was full of mountains, forests and river valleys that routinely flooded. Indeed the state census of 1850 counted fewer than 100,000 people. Nearly 170 years later the state is America’s most populous and most wealthy by some distance, with 40m residents and the world’s fifth-largest economy. Some consider it too big and too unwieldy, and various movements are pursuing dreams of breaking it up.

The notion of carving up a state is not new. Proposals for splitting California date from 1855. And the desire for change is not unique to California. In 2011 Democrats in Pima County, Arizona, proposed turning their 1m-person county into “Baja Arizona”. Two years later, 11 counties in northern Colorado, where three in four voters had chosen Mitt Romney for president, voted on whether to take their oil and gas deposits and create a sparsely populated new state. Neither group made much progress.

In California, rural and urban areas can have very different attitudes about taxation, spending, gun licensing and the exploitation of public lands. With exceptions, the less-populated parts of California lean towards conservatism, whereas the urban ones, which enjoy much of the employment and the wealth, lean Democratic. The so-called Big Sort, which has seen Americans increasingly moving to live near those who share their political views, happens at an appropriately large scale in California: big cities are heavily liberal; rural counties have grown redder. The proposed splits of the state tend to emphasise the effects of the sorting process. The New California proposal, which paints the state government as a den of tax-crazed socialists, would carve out mainly rural counties into a 51st state. By contrast, Tim Draper, a billionaire, argues that California is simply too big for good governance, and that smaller states would better serve residents, though he has stated no specific policy or taxation goals. He once proposed a six-way split, but now favours three states: NorCal would encompass San Francisco and northern California; Cal would grab most of the rest of the coast, including Los Angeles; and SoCal would occupy San Diego and the once-fertile Inland Empire and the southern Central Valley.

Impediments to such changes abound. The last splitting of a state took place in 1863, when parts of Virginia, a Confederate state, became the Union state of West Virginia. For a state to splinter, both chambers of the state legislature would normally approve a resolution, as would the United States’ House and Senate. Mr Draper says he has the necessary signatures to send a citizen’s initiative to the ballot this November, which would allow him to bypass the state legislature. But even if approved by a majority of Californians, the matter would almost certainly be contested on constitutional and procedural grounds. And even if a successful initiative’s validity were upheld, the American Congress is unlikely to vote to increase California’s senatorial delegation. But there is another effort afoot. Calexit, a secession proposal by the Yes California group, would keep the state whole—as an independent country. It withdrew a previous attempt to get a vote on the ballot, after its co-founder was discovered to have relocated to Russia.

Correction (June 4th 2018): The Calexit proposal was withdrawn last year before the deadline to gather signatures had been reached. The move was linked to the relocation to Russia of a co-founder (not the founder, as we wrote) of the Yes California group.