Political Subdivisions

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POLITICAL SUBDIVISIONS are local governments created by the states to help fulfill their obligations. Political subdivisions include counties, cities, towns, villages, and special districts such as school districts, water districts, park districts, and airport districts. In the late 1990s, there were almost 90,000 political subdivisions in the United States.

American colonists brought the tradition of counties with them from England and kept them for administrative purposes after the Revolution. Only Connecticut and Rhode Island do not having working county governments. Typically, the whole territory of a state is covered by counties, which perform a range of governmental functions such as tax collection, highway construction, and law enforcement. There are about 3,000 counties in the United States.

Unlike counties, which are involuntary, cities, towns, and villages are formed by their residents, usually based on common interests. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, clusters of people established cities for protection and for commercial, political, and religious infrastructure. In the nineteenth century, cities became convenient mechanisms for the delivery of public services such as water and garbage collection.

Incorporation can serve other purposes as well. People create new cities to inflate land values—common in the frontier West—dodge taxes, or exclude unwanted inhabitants. For example, when church groups planned to build public housing in the unincorporated area of Black Jack, Missouri, in 1969, residents petitioned to become a city and promptly zoned out apartment buildings.

State governments establish the procedures and requirements for requesting city charters, such as dictating a minimum population. They also determine which functions city governments can perform. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, cities won home rule from the states, which gave them considerably more authority over their own affairs. But, while modern cities provide services, ranging from police protection and recycling, to elevator inspection, they nevertheless remain divisions of the state and operate under state law.

Like cities, special districts are voluntary. They usually provide the services that a city or county might offer. While one city might run its own fire, water, and parks departments, another might get those services from three separate special districts. They enjoy many of the powers given to cities, including eminent domain and the authority to tax, but they are comparatively free of bureaucracy and, therefore, much easier to create and control. They are also less accountable to the public; turnout in district elections tends to be extremely low. Because special districts can operate with less visibility, some have been made to serve private interests. For example, Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, is also the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Walt Disney influenced the creation of the special district in 1967 to prevent surrounding localities from interfering with the construction of his theme park.

Special districts first became popular during the New Deal, when local governments on the verge of default used them to circumvent debt limits. The number of special districts has more than doubled since then, reaching almost 50,000 by the late 1990s.


Berman, David R. County Governments in an Era of Change. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

———. State and Local Politics. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2000.

Burns, Nancy. The Formation of American Local Governments: Private Values in Public Institutions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


See alsoLocal Government .

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Political Subdivisions

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