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No One Talks About Counties -- But They Should


Counties can be large or small. Los Angles county oversees the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts' Joint Water Pollution Control Plant (center) in Carson, CA, with the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

Counties can be large or small. Los Angles county oversees the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts' Joint Water Pollution Control Plant (center) in Carson, CA, with the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

On election night in the U.S. this year, reporters will talk a lot about places that are not familiar even to most Americans: Hamilton, Bucks, Chester, Hillsborough and Pinellas.

They are not U.S. states, and they are not U.S. cities. They are just a few of the more than 3,000 counties across the country.

What is a county?

The U.S. Census Bureau calls counties “the primary political and administrative divisions of states.” In other words, a county is part of a state. It can be as small as a few square miles or it can be tens of thousands of square miles.

Each state has an average of 62 counties. However, Hawaii and Delaware have only three. Texas has the most counties – 254.

Counties were among the first local governments created in the original 13 American colonies in the 1600s.

The first counties were created so that the area’s main city -- called the “county seat” -- was no more than one day’s travel by horse for people who lived within the county’s borders. The county government headquarters, county courthouse and land ownership records are in the county seat.

The root of American counties is in England, where local governments of the king were called “shires.” The king created these shires a thousand years ago to help him rule his country.

The top law enforcer in these shires was called the “shire reeve.” This became the word “sheriff.” The shire reeve acted as both the local government and the representative of the king.

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, shires began to be called counties, a French word.

A county by any other name…

In Alaska, counties are called boroughs. In Louisiana, they are called parishes.

Each county has a name. The majority are named after people. More than 30 are named for George Washington, the first president of the United States.

Among those counties with geographic names, the most common word is “lake.”

Many counties are also named for Native American tribes, including Appomattox in Virginia and Tishomingo in Mississippi.

And some counties were named for areas of England, such as Essex and Suffolk Counties, or for members of the British aristocracy, such as Hanover and Loudoun.

Other interesting county names include Petroleum, Piscataquis, Esmerelda, Cimarron, Beaver, Coffee, Christian, Winnebago and Wirt. Others are Treasure, Eureka, Sunflower, Granite and Musselshell.

What can counties do?

Unlike states, neither counties nor cities are mentioned in the Constitution. The founders let the states decide what powers they would give to the counties, if any.

At first, counties just enforced state laws. But after World War I and World War II, the U.S. population increased sharply and more people moved to cities. States needed help. They were unable to govern effectively from their capitals, so the power of counties began to grow.

Today, counties handle child welfare, libraries, transportation, consumer protection, economic development and environmental protection.

The National Association of Counties says “county governments affect the lives of Americans across the country every day.”

The organization notes that counties “keep important records -- like birth certificates, marriage licenses, court documents and land purchases. Counties build roads and bridges and ensure their safety. Some counties maintain parks with fields for soccer and baseball. They care for the sick, operate hospitals, pick up trash and run courts and jails.”

Counties also register voters and supervise elections. Some operate police departments and health and welfare departments. Some large counties do far more.

Overall, counties spend more than $554 billion every year and employ about 3.6 million people.

Who lives where?

An average of about 100,000 people live in America’s counties.

The smallest county measured by population is Loving County, Texas. Fewer than 100 people live there.

The county with the largest population is Los Angeles County, California. Almost 10 million people live there.

The top four most-densely-populated counties are in New York City. New York County, New York has about 71,000 persons per square mile. The top four least-densely-populated counties are in Alaska. Those counties have less than one person per square mile.

Across the United States most counties are losing population. In fact, an increasing number of U.S. counties are dying. Experts say counties “die” because they have increasingly-older populations, a low birth rate and a poor economy. They say it is difficult for such counties to retain or attract younger people.

Kenneth Johnson is a senior demographer and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He told the Associated Press news agency that “these counties are in a pretty steep downward spiral. The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age. Unless something dramatic changes -- for instance, new development such as a meatpacking plant to attract young Hispanics -- these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease.”

If not for immigrants, 194 more counties across the U.S. would have lost population in recent years.

So why the election night coverage?

Even though they are important to their local populations, the vast majority of counties will never receive national attention. But in November every four years, the media talks a lot about several counties -- including Hamilton County in Ohio, Bucks and Chester Counties in Pennsylvania, and Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties in Florida.

These are “swing counties” -- counties where voters change every few years, or at least change their minds about which political party to vote for. Presidential candidates often fight for these voters. And often, political observers say, results from these swing counties predict which way the rest of the state will go.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

VOA Correspondent Christopher Jones-Cruise reported this story from Washington and wrote it in Special English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

seat – n. a place (such as a city) where the people who run a government, religion, etc., are based

aristocracy – n. the highest social class in some countries; the people who have special titles (such as duke and duchess), who typically own land, and who traditionally have more money and power than the other people in a society

retain – v. to keep (someone) in a position, job, etc.

attract – v. to cause (someone) to choose to do or be involved in something

spiral – n. a situation in which something continuously increases, decreases or gets worse

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