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Why does Georgia have so many counties?

Four years ago, Democrat Stacey Abrams won only 29 counties compared to Brian Kemp’s 130, but lost the popular vote by only 54,723 votes.
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 6:22 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - With more counties than any state east of the Mississippi and second only to Texas in the US, Georgia’s large number of counties also had major political implications.

Georgia’s counties were originally drawn with 19th-century transportation purposes in mind: so that citizens could make a round-trip to their county seat, by horse or wagon, in a single day.

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“The problem with that, in my research, I haven’t seen that in the law anywhere,” said Dr. Ben Taylor, an associate professor of political science at Kennesaw State University. “Geographically, Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi. But Alabama isn’t much smaller and they only have 67 counties.”

In the early 1900s, the state also adopted the county unit system, which divided Georgia’s counties by population into urban, town and rural categories based on a winner-take-all system. Urban counties were given six unit votes; town counties received four unit votes; and rural counties were given two unit votes.

Thus, the incentive grew for rural Georgia areas to form their own counties: more rural counties meant more political power for those areas.

“It gave weighted political power to rural areas,” Taylor said. “So even though Fulton County where Atlanta is could have had 6,000 voters, smaller counties could have a couple of hundred voters, and nd a couple of those counties together, would have as much political power as Fulton County.”

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By the 1930s, rural counties outnumbered urban areas 15 to one. Politicians running for statewide office were elected based on the number of counties they carried, not the popular vote.

That all changed in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr the county unit system violated the Constitution’s “one man, one vote” provision. Also that year, a similar lawsuit in Georgia paved the way for Democrat Carl Sanders to become Georgia’s first popularly elected governor in almost 50 years.

The number of counties in Georgia was capped by the General Assembly in 1945 at 159.

“On some level, Georgia has benefited from so many counties because that means access to that level of government is close for most people. The problem too, there’s always a drawback with so many counties, is you have wide disparities with population and economic activity,” Taylor added.

Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election was the closest since 1966, when a race featuring Democrat Lester Maddox, Republican Howard “Bo” Calloway and Ellis Arnall, an independent, was thrown into the state General Assembly to decide. Maddox was elected by state legislators on the first ballot despite having lost the popular vote by less than 1 percent.

Four years ago, Democrat Stacey Abrams won only 29 counties compared to Brian Kemp’s 130, but lost the popular vote by only 54,723 votes. The final tally was Kemp’s 50.2% (1,978,408) to Abrams’ 48.8% (1,923,685 votes). Libertarian Ted Metz earned less than 1% of the vote.