In the United States, a county is an administrative or political subdivision of a state. These geographic regions have specific boundaries and some level of government authority. The term “county” is used in 48 states. Louisiana uses the term “parishes,” and Alaska used “boroughs.”
County sizes vary significantly across the U.S. Arlington County in Virginia is 67 square kilometers (25.87 square miles), while the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area in Alaska is 376,860 square kilometers (145,505 square miles). Population size range from 170 people in Loving County, Texas, and 10.04 million in Los Angeles County, California.
Unlike the states, which have a federal governing relationship in the United States Constitution, there is no mention of local government. The Constitution established that government power was divided between the federal government and the states. This means that local government vests all power in the states and counties exist merely as agents of the states and enjoy the powers given to them by the states.
Government powers of counties vary widely between states. The county government performs essential administrative functions such as keeping records, registering voters, supervising elections, administering health and welfare services, and providing law enforcement.
Additionally, county governments have other “housekeeping” functions such as prosecuting criminals, administering a jail, keeping vital statistics, and controlling infectious diseases. As populations began to grow in urban and suburban areas, county governments were tasked with mass transportation, airports, water supply, hospitals, building and housing codes, public housing, sewage disposal, recreation programs, libraries, and consumer protection.
History of Counties
U.S. county governments have their origin in English shires. Shires were created in the 9th century by the Kingdom of England to serve as the crown's local administrative arms Around 1066, “shires” were renamed to “counties,” but retained the same functions. English county governments operated under a "shire-reeve" or sheriff, the county's plural executive, and shared power with the justices of peace.
The first colonial counties were established in Virginia in 1634. There were eight counties in the commonwealth. Officials were appointed to a county court to govern the counties, and the sheriff and several justices of peace shared executive power. The other colonies established counties shortly after Virginia, with southern colonies following Virginia’s model and northern colonies developing their counties differently.
Northern colonies decided to elect county officials rather than appoint them. Additionally, the counties had reduced responsibilities due to the predominance of towns and cities in the northern colonies. New York and New Jersey established city and town officials and representatives on the county board of supervisors.
Some states had hybrid systems of northern and southern states. Pennsylvania, for example, established three county commissions in 1862. Like the southern colonies, Pennsylvania established counties that predominant form of government. Like the northern colonies, however, the local officials were elected by the citizens. This model spread to other states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Following the Revolution and independence, counties became administrative arms of the states rather than of the crown. They exist as agents of their state and only enjoy the power the state gives them.
States with the Most Counties
Today, there are 3,243 counties in the United States. This includes 136 county-equivalents in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia and 100 county-equivalents in U.S. territories. The states that have the highest number of counties are listed below. These numbers include independent cities, such as those in Virginia, which function as county-equivalents.