I was looking at sample ballots for the upcoming general election today, and was reminded of something I’ve wondered about for a decade now: why are “townships” listed on ballots in North Carolina elections? Aren’t townships a Yankee thing?
They are indeed. According to Wikipedia, the following states use some form of the “township” government: Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. You’ve probably noticed the complete absence of any Southern states on that list. So how did they end up in North Carolina, and what are they used for?
After the American Civil War, the former Confederate states were compelled by Congress to write new state constitutions. In some cases, states simply dusted off their pre-Civil War constitutions, made a few changes here and there (especially incorporating previous amendments into the new documents), and ratified it thusly.
Things were different in North Carolina. The post-Civil War legislature was dominated by Republicans, including many members from the north (a.k.a carpetbaggers). And the township system was not only what they were familiar with, it also reduced the political power of “good old boy” local governments put in place by the antebellum aristocracy. So it was win-win for them. The Republican legislature therefore adopted the township system into the North Carolina Constitution of 1868. In it, each county was divided into multiple townships, and each township had two justices of the peace, a clerk, a three-member school board and at least one constable. Each member of the township government served a two-year term, and the overall system was almost identical to the township systems of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Whigs and former Confederates in North Carolina were, unsurprisingly, livid about the new system. They opposed it so much, in fact, that they put aside their differences to form the Conservative Party, which, in 1877, took control of the legislature. And one of their first acts was to abolish the township system. They passed constitutional amendments that removed taxation power from the township governments, abolished the position of township clerk, and changed the justice of the peace from an elected to an appointed position. County governments began to take control of local governance, although township school boards would remain in place for several more years.
So… if townships no longer have any power, why do they still exist? They are used as convenient subdivisions for counties. County taxes are based on which township you live in. Voting precincts and polling places are determined by township. Fire department districts are divided up by township. And, 144 years later, the boundaries of most school boards are still determined by township. But the main reason townships still exist is real estate: land deeds were once categorized strictly by township. This is optional today, although many old buildings, like churches and old farmhouses, might still have only the township on the deed. Land surveys are also conducted by township, a process also used by Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Counties are free to add, change or rename townships. As you can see, Gaston County has retained traditional township names: Cherryville Township, Dallas Township, Riverbend Township, Crowders Mountain Township, Gastonia Township, and the South Point Township. Mecklenburg County, to the east, just over the Catawba River, has simply numbered their townships, so folks in Huntersville can enjoy living in “Township 15”.