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Breaking up Is Hard to Do

Scott Lucas | September 15, 2014 | Story Politics

Friday afternoon is traditionally the day to dump bad news that you want to see buried. So it's fitting that last Friday came word of the likely implosion of venture capitalist Tim Draper's ballot initiative that would have split California into six separate states. Though Draper had turned in more than 1.1 million signatures to the Secretary of State in July, the standard review found that of those, only 752,685 were from registered California voters. The measure needed the support of 807,615 registered voters.

That doesn't everything's totally finished, though. Draper, who has spent $4.9 million of his own money on the initiative, has vowed to fight to overturn the Secretary of State's ruling.

The initiative had a surprisingly low validation rate—overall just 66%—with some counties as low as 56.1%. (That means that Draper's campaign turned in a high rate of duplicate or non-registered voter signatures.)

And though the fight isn't quite over, it does feel like it's about time for a post mortem summing the whole campaign. We've had a lot of fun with—and made a lot of fun of—Draper over the course of the campaign. But the Six Californias plan was never quite as dumb as critics made it out to be—nor Draper any political savant. More than anything, this campaign will go down as yet another example in the long history of rich Californias—many of them with technology fortunes—who underestimated how difficult politics is.

Let's just take a moment to review the bad ideas embedded in the plan: It would have split our population centers from our water supplies. It would have created some of the poorest states in the union. It would have created a massive headache in splitting up the UC system. It probably wouldn't have passed Constitutional muster. Worst of all: It would have renamed the entire Bay Area as Silicon Valley.

But, as the vote in Scotland or the long-simmering secession movements in Quebec or Catalonia remind us, there's always an argument to be made about the proper geographic ambit of a government. It just so happens this one wasn't it.

But more than that, Six Californias is an object lesson for California's digitally-enriched class—and for the Google-bus blockade brigade too. Wealth is strongly liable to overestimate its own power. Here's just a partial list: Vinod Khosla. Meg Whitman. Chris Kelly. Carly Fiorina. Steve Westly. Arianna Huffington. (That's just in the state of California—to be frank, Tim Draper mix of earnestness and cluelessness reminds us of nobody more than Mitt Romney.) The last years are littered with them. What's the common thread? It turns out that amassing a personal fortune is not a transferable skill to drumming up votes. In a way, that's actually very heartening: Board room tycoons don't get anything like a free pass when they enter the political sphere.

But it also points to the inertia that under-girds state politics. California's ship of state turns very slowly. (Just have a gander at the woefully outmoded legislative database it uses). In the time it took Draper to flush $4.9 million into turning himself into a national punchline, he could have funded a half-dozen start ups. Five of them might have turned into Yo, but one might have been the next Skype. If you could do that, what exactly is the point of wasting time convincing voters in Modesto? The effort to output ratio is way out of whack. That being said, good for Draper for taking his shot at changing it. (Around the San Francisco offices, we call that the Yo theorem: Better to try and suck than not try.)

So you had a half-assed idea that lasted longer (and may still have a little life left) than any of us expected. Good for you Tim. But maybe next time the midlife crisis hits, you could wire than money to Elon Musk to let you take a ride on the Space Plane and leave the politics to us groundlings. Besides, he'll always have the University of Heroes.

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