Veterans Day Parade and Ceremony

Mounted riders carry American flags and the Oregon State flag down Main Street during the Veterans Day parade in 2017.

On Tuesday, May 17, Klamath County citizens will vote on whether they want to create a three-person board to "study state border relocation benefits" to join the state of Idaho by moving the borders that separate the two states.

If the movement is successful, the borders of Idaho will stretch all the way to the Southern Oregon coast, taking the majority of Oregon’s land with it. In doing so, Oregon will be reduced only to the densely populated Northwest corner of the state, west of the Cascades. Rural counties, including Klamath, will no longer fall under the influence of Salem, instead joining Boise to the east.

The movement is partisan in nature, divided sharply down political lines, separating the Democratic government in Salem from the conservative majority found in the rural parts of the state. Already, eight conservative counties have voted to become a part of Idaho, with Klamath having its chance to join them.

While movements focused on changing state borders have happened in the past, Greater Idaho stands out for its local electoral success and for its historical context, given the political polarization in the country.

According to Mike McCarter, the founder of Greater Idaho, the movement began as a humble Facebook conversation in 2019 before blossoming into a series of meetings.

“If it was just a few of us trying to move this forward in a grassroots movement, and if the people weren’t in agreement with us through rural Oregon, then it’s not going to work,” McCarter said. “And so we started the petition process, and oh my gosh.”

Through discussion and brainstorming, McCarter and his colleagues chose to pursue statehood with Idaho because they saw it as a better fit for the ideologies of rural Oregon. “Our traditional values of faith, family, freedom, and independence are more like those of Idaho than they are of Northwest Oregon or the West Coast in general.”

These so-called traditional values are seen to run contrary to the direction of Salem, and to those of a rapidly shifting Democratic party. According to Neil O’Brian, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, conservative values haven’t changed much throughout the past few years. Instead, he said, it is liberal beliefs that have shifted. “People didn’t become more anti-immigrant under the Trump administration. But, for example, liberals have become way more liberal on immigration, way more liberal on race, and that’s supercharged our politics.”

Compounding these issues are demographic changes that have been occurring for years. According to O’Brian, higher education is linked with supporting Democratic candidates, but “if you go back 10 years, even to the Romney campaign, that wasn’t the case.”

Even population density — a well-known predictor of political affiliation — hasn’t always correlated with voting trends. In 1916, there wasn’t much of a distinction between highly populated areas and voting for the Democrat. In 2016, 100 years later, that correlation is significant, and it has left rural areas feeling underrepresented.

Said O’Brian, “Rural areas really view government as an urban institution that’s there to serve urban areas, and not people in rural areas, so that generates a level of rural resentment and mistrust.”

But even if Idaho is a better ideological fit for rural Oregonians, the reality of actually changing state lines is complicated by myriad legal factors. If the borders change, Idaho state laws will affect the lives of those who live in Klamath and elsewhere in the state. This means accepting a 6% sales tax, stricter drug regulations, and crucially, decreased medical benefits. According to U.S. News and World Report, Oregon ranks higher in healthcare than Idaho.

Jean Lamb, a former accountant for Liberty Tax, wrote a dissenting opinion in the Klamath County voter’s pamphlet. “The income limits for Medicaid are much lower in Idaho than they are in Oregon,” she said, “so there’s going to be a significant portion of working people who won’t be able to get health insurance anymore.”

While Lamb acknowledged income tax is lower under Idaho law, she said, “A lot of poor people pay Oregon income tax, but they get most of it back at the end of the year because they don’t make very much money. They would not be helped by lower income taxes in Idaho, and they would be hurt by the sales tax.”

There is also the issue of licensing. Lawyers, doctors, and vehicle owners would all be subject to the new Idaho laws. While McCarter said that current Oregon residents could be grandfathered in, Lamb sees this as an impermanent solution. Eventually, lawyers would have to pass tests to practice in Idaho, and drivers would need to acquire and pay for new licenses - “35 to 40 bucks is a big expenditure to some families,” she said.

Education is another factor that voters might wish to consider. In this regard, Idaho ranks as the stronger state and has a better high school graduation rate. But according to the USDA Economic Research Service, while Ada County, the most highly populated county in Idaho, had about a 95% graduation rate, this isn’t the case throughout the state. In fact, the large and sparsely populated Owyhee County had a graduation rate of only about 76% between 2015 and 2019. Owyhee lies on the southwest border of Idaho, just east of Oregon.

Even if Klamath County residents choose to vote for Greater Idaho, the challenges only increase from there. The vote itself does not guarantee admission into Idaho, which is a point that McCarter acknowledged. “The county vote really doesn’t do anything but send a voice to the Oregon legislature,” he said. “But from a grassroots movement, that’s the way you go. From the people up, not the government down.”

In order for the borders to actually change, the legislatures in both Oregon and Idaho would have to approve it, followed by Congress. While even the Greater Idaho website itself states that the chances of success are less than 50-50, McCarter remains optimistic. “People in the beginning were pretty negative,” he said. “Well, if you don’t try it, how are you going to find out? Are you just going to sit there and complain and whine, or are you going to do something to improve it?”

Greater Idaho also has influential allies in the legislature, including Idaho Representative Barbara Ehardt, who authored the bill for her state. She sees Greater Idaho as a realistic and mutually beneficial opportunity. “The reason it’s gained more traction in the Idaho-Oregon discussion is because we have legislators like me who have gotten on board from the other side of Idaho who have really embraced this idea.”

In exchange for Eastern and Southern Oregon’s natural resources, including timber, minerals, and water, she is eager to welcome Oregonians who feel slighted by their own government.

“Our regulations are night-and-day different than Oregon’s regulations and we value our agriculture and we value our wide-open ranges,” she said. “We know that it’s incredibly important to have the ability to farm and generate food right here, not just in America, but in our own backyard.”

Ehardt also values the military presence in Klamath County, such as at Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base. While she doesn’t anticipate the functionality of the base changing along with the state lines, she does welcome the presence of military personnel who currently reside in Oregon. “Those who tend to lean left look at the military almost with a certain disdain,” she said. “We don’t look at military that way here in Idaho. They would be looked at very favorably.”

After she stressed the importance of conservative values and the viability of the movement becoming a reality, she signed off with a final reason to vote for Greater Idaho, perhaps a bit more whimsical than the rest.

“It’s kind of fun to say that we’d be the third-largest state in the union behind Alaska and Texas.”

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