This legislative session, a bill came up to recreate Milton County, which was absorbed into Fulton County during the Great Depression. That bill didn’t go anywhere, but it did get WABE thinking about counties.
Georgia has 159 of them, and that’s more than just about every other state. In fact, only Texas has more.
Where did all of Georgia’s counties come from?
When you ask a group of Georgians how the state ended up with 159 counties, there’s a story you’ll probably hear: Georgia’s counties were designed so that farmers in a mule-drawn wagon could get to the courthouse and back within the course of a day.
According to this explanation, counties would have to be really small and so Georgia, a pretty big state, had to create a lot of them.
“That’s really an apocryphal story, as far as I know,” said Glenn Eskew, a history professor at Georgia State University. “I’ve never seen any law in the state code that stipulated that.”
Eskew says the mule drawn wagon explanation, even if not factual, does tell us something about why many of the state’s counties were created.
“In Georgia, the population was so rural and spread out, that by having a structure of the county government, you were able to connect the very disperse, rural population with some governmental entity,” he said.
But there is more to the story than that.
“One reason I think that Georgia has so many of these things, 159, was not just so that the citizens would be able to get access to government, but also so that rural Georgia would be able to control the state,” Eskew said.
See, starting in the late 1800s, a political system was taking shape. It was called the County Unit System.
The way it worked was candidates in Georgia won not by number of votes, but by number of counties they carried.
“There was a saying back in the old days in the County Unit System that pine trees counted more than people when it came to electing a governor,” said Tom Crawford, a longtime political journalist and editor of the Georgia Report.
That’s because counties had a set amount of votes, almost regardless of population. And that meant more counties equaled more power.
As the County Unit System went into place, lawmakers created more counties — a couple dozen — so that by the 1930s rural counties outnumbered urban areas 15 to one.
“That’s why for years rural counties dominated both the legislature and the governor’s office,” said Crawford. Former Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge even boasted about never carrying a county with a streetcar in it, Crawford added.
Is 159 Counties Too Many?
This changed in the 1960s when the Supreme Court ruled one person had to equal one vote and thus the County Unit System was unconstitutional.
By that point, Georgia’s constitution had put a limit on the state’s counties — no more than 159.
Now, some are asking if we really need that many. One person who’s skeptical is Randy Evans, a partner at Dentons law firm and a Republican National committeeman for Georgia.
“With each county, you have a whole set of government,” Evans said. “So you have county commissioners, you have a sheriff, you have a clerk. You have all of this governmental infrastructure, which to the average taxpayer is pretty expensive.”
In his view, Georgia today really only needs about half the county governments it has.
Evans said he thinks many state politicians agree. It’s just that it isn’t as easy to get rid of counties as it was to create them.
“Every governor that I’ve worked with just notes and says it’s virtually impossible to take away any political fiefdom,” Evans said.
“You go to any county commissioner and say suddenly, we’d like to take your county and six other counties and create a community county here, where you have a consolidation of government,” Evans continued. “It’s very difficult to take that away after they’ve worked that hard to get elected.”
But rural counties don’t have the same power they did during the County Unit System. Some have lost half their population.
“We have a series of counties in the state that are on economic hard times; we continue to monitor that,” said Ross King. He’s the executive director of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia — the counties’ lobbying voice.
Over the years the ACCG has provided more help to counties, and the group itself has grown. King says, a few decades ago, the group had 6 people on staff. Now, it has 86.
Some counties today do make ends meet by sharing services, King says. A few have even merged with cities, like Clarke County did with Athens.
“And to this point, we have 8 consolidated governments that are in place,” King said. “There’s not been any serious discussion about county-county consolidation, but I dare say that that is something that will be looked at as time moves on.”
So, that means 159 counties … for now.