Why is this interesting? - The County Edition

On locality, governance, and Georgia

Ryan Anderson (RJA) is making his third appearance in WITI after previously writing about Video Assisted Review and The Richest Game. He is a marketing director based in Atlanta, GA, and is in a competition against his coworker Graydon Gordian for who can writethemostWITIs. At various points in his life, he has done much more interesting things like being a professional poker player and helping lead the grassroots fan movement that brought an MLS team to Atlanta. Recently one of those things has been GeorgiaVotes.com, which chronicled the early voting behavior across the state of Georgia including breakdowns by county which brought us here.

Ryan here. For much of the US, counties—also known as parishes (Louisiana) and boroughs (Alaska)—determine where we go to school, how much we pay in sales and property taxes, who polices our neighborhoods, and even who picks up our trash. And if you’re anything like me, you likely never gave them much thought outside those basic services.

After all, we are the United States of America. The concept of states was ensconced in our country’s founding. Meanwhile, humans have gathered themselves in cities for over 12,000 years, going back at least to the city of Jericho in the 10th century BCE. But a few years ago, I found myself wondering where the county, which is effectively the middle-manager of government hierarchies, came from.

My attempts to answer what seemed like a simple question only led to more confusion over their purpose. Counties, as it turns out, are a positively Seussian collection of peculiarities.

Why is this interesting?

Sometime in the last few months you probably found yourself sitting in front of the TV watching Steve Kornacki or John King zip around a giant touchscreen, zooming in to county-level vote totals and speaking to comparisons against previous years’ voting behavior. Their ability to seemingly spout off the name of every county in every swing state engrossed the viewing public.

The word county itself is derived from the Old French word conté, which described an expanse of land under the control of a Count. This makes sense etymologically, as a King controls a Kingdom and Duke controls a Duchy, while at the same time being quite confusing historically. Unless I missed a semester of US history, the total number of counts who have ever held office in America is zero.

So we stole the word, but then what makes a county a county? It’s clearly not population. Kings County, also known as Brooklyn, has a population that is approximately 5,775-times the size of Hamilton County in Upstate New York. It also doesn’t appear to be based on area. After all, California and its 156,000 square miles have 58 total counties (27th most of any state) while Kentucky fits 120 into a quarter of the space.

Some places don’t even really care about counties. Rhode Island is the smallest state in the country at just 37 miles wide by 48 miles long. And while the state is made up of five counties, there are no actual county governments. Each county just acts as a boundary line for the state-run sheriffs and courts. Connecticut works in a similar way.

Georgia, where I live, does care about counties. So much so that there are 159 of them. That’s the second-most of any state (Texas has 254, and also about 200,000 more square miles of land area and 16 million more people). 

The seemingly apocryphal but amazingly true story for most of these is that Georgia used to have a rule that everyone in a county should be able to travel to the county seat and back in a single day. Given the primary mode of travel at the time (horseback), that meant counties needed to occupy a pretty small land area. As the population of the state continued expanding west, a bunch of new counties was mandated by law. The state went from eight counties in 1777, to 24 by 1800, to 65 in 1825, to 135 in 1875.

Georgia, however, didn’t stop creating counties once cars and trains came along. That’s thanks to the state’s County Unit System. In the post-Reconstruction era, Georgia decided to create an electoral college of sorts, where the eight largest counties (home to most of the state’s Black residents) were each worth six unit votes, the next 30 mid-sized counties were worth four-unit votes, and the remaining 100+ counties were each worth two unit votes. The implications for what part of the state would control statewide government is clear. After this system went into effect in 1917, the state created nine more small counties, meaning 18 more unit votes for rural white voters.

While this system was ruled illegal in 1963, thus creating the “one person, one vote” standard, the 159 counties remain, and no efforts to consolidate them have gained significant traction. Next time you come through Georgia have a look at the license plates. At the bottom, you’ll see listed the county that issued it. See if you can spot all 159. (RJA)

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County Population GIF of the Day:

What better use of counties than to show the population migration and growth of the United States over the last 220 years. From Len Kiefer. (RJA)

Quick Links:

  • Counties lead to weird governance, and one great example of this is McIntosh County down in Southeast Georgia. Melissa Fay Greene takes you through the ins-and-outs of the majority-Black county electing their first Black county commissioner in the late 1970s in Praying for Sheetrock. (RJA)

  • Umberto Eco walks through his library to find a book. (RJA)

  • First photos of the new Oval Office (CJN)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ryan (RJA)


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