Tuesday, November 20, 2007


This article is part of the series: Politics and government of the United States
Vice President Cabinet
Supreme Court Circuit Courts of Appeal District Courts
The political units and divisions of the United States include:
Altogether, there are an estimated 85,000 extant political entities in the United States. Political units and divisions of the United States are a subset of the total United States territory.

The 50 states (4 of these being officially styled as Commonwealths), which are typically divided into counties and townships, and incorporated cities, towns, villages, and other types of municipalities, and other autonomous or subordinate public authorities and institutions. With the exception of the original 13, each state was admitted to the Union at a specific time by an act of the U.S. Congress.
The District of Columbia, which constitutes the city of Washington, the Capital of the United States. Although the District of Columbia is not a state and does not send Senators or voting Representatives to Congress, residents can vote in presidential elections and are represented in the Electoral College.
Indian reservations are given quasi-independent status. While every reservation is part of a state, and residents vote as residents of the state in which they reside and do pay federal taxes, the reservations are exempt from many state and local laws. The ambiguous nature of their status has both created opportunities (such as gambling in states that normally disallow it) and challenges (such as the unwillingness of some companies to open up shop in a territory where they are not certain what laws will apply to them).
Territories of the United States may be incorporated (part of the United States proper) or unincorporated (known variously as "possessions", "overseas territories" or "commonwealths") Territories may also be organized (with self-government explicitly granted by an Organic Act of the U.S. Congress) or unorganized (without such direct authorization of self-government). 31 of the current 50 states were organized incorporated territories before their admission to the Union. Since 1959, the United States has had only one incorporated territory (Palmyra Atoll), but maintains control of several unincorporated territories, both organized and unorganized.
The federal union, which constitutes the United States as a collective of the several states, and as it exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the military installations, and American embassies and consulates located in foreign countries; and until the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973 had jurisdiction over the local affairs of the District of Columbia.
Such quasi-political divisions as conservation districts and school districts, which are usually just special, geographically designated subordinate public authorities.
Recognized bodies, such as homeowners associations, which fulfill government functions, and have since been bound by subsequent court decisions to certain restrictions normally applying to local governments. Political units and system of operation

Federal oversight of United States territory
Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution defines the extent of the authority that the U.S. Congress exercises over the territory of the United States:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
The power of Congress over territorial divisions that are not part of one of the states is exclusive and universal. Once the territory becomes a state of the Union, the state must consent to any changes pertaining to the jurisdiction of that state. This has been violated only once, when a rump legislature formed the State of West Virginia, seceding from Virginia, which itself had seceded from the United States in the months preceding the American Civil War.

Congress of the United States
On March 3, 1849, the last day of the 30th Congress, a bill was passed to create the U.S. Department of the Interior to take charge of the internal affairs of United States territory. The Interior Department has a wide range of responsibilities (which include the regulation of territorial governments, the basic responsibilities for public lands, and other various duties).
In contrast to similarly named Departments in other countries, the United States Department of the Interior is not responsible for local government or for civil administration except in the cases of Indian reservations, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and island dependencies, through the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA).

United States Department of the Interior

Main article: U.S. state States of the United States

Main article: Local government in the United StatesPolitical divisions of the United States Divisions of U.S. states
The states are divided into smaller administrative regions, called counties in most states — exceptions being Alaska (parts of the state are organized into subdivisions called boroughs; the rest of the state's territory that is not included in any borough is divided into "census areas"), and Louisiana (which is divided into county-equivalents that are called parishes). There are also forty-two independent cities which are within particular states but not part of any particular county: thirty-nine of these are in Virginia and the other three are Baltimore, Maryland, St. Louis, Missouri and Carson City, Nevada. Counties can include a number of cities, towns, villages, or hamlets, or sometimes just a part of a city. Counties have varying degrees of political and legal significance, but they are always administrative divisions of the state. For further detail, visit counties and county statistics of the United States. Counties in many states are further subdivided into townships - which, by definition, are administrative divisions of a county. In some states, such as Michigan, a township can file a charter with the state government, making itself into a "charter township", which is a type of mixed municipal and township status (giving the township some of the rights of a city without all of the responsibilities), much in the way a metropolitan municipality is a mixed municipality and county.

Counties in the United States

Main article: List of cities in the United States Cities in the United States
Township is an intermediate civic designation between city and county; cities sometimes cross county boundaries, townships never do. Some townships have governments and political power, others are simply geographic designations. Townships in the United States are generally the product of the Public Land Survey System. For more information, see survey township and civil township. Townships are subdivided into sections, which never have separate governments.
The terms townships and towns are closely related (in many historical documents the terms are used interchangeably). However, the powers granted to towns or townships varies considerably from state to state. In New England, towns are a principal form of local government, providing many of the functions of counties in other states. In California, by contrast, the pertinent statutes of the Government Code clarify that "town" is simply another word for "city", especially a general law city as distinct from a charter city.

Townships in the United States

Jurisdictions not administered by the states
A separate federal district, the District of Columbia, which is under the direct authority of Congress, was formed from land ceded to the Federal Government by the adjoining states of Maryland and Virginia; although all of the Virginia cession was subsequently returned to state jurisdiction. The district does not form part of any state and the United States Congress has the constitutional power of, "Exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever", over the district; however, the District of Columbia Home Rule Act provides for a mayor-council system of government.
The District of Columbia is coterminous with the nation's capital city, Washington.

Federal district of the United States
American Indian reservations are a separate and special classification of political division of the U.S. Under U.S. law, Indian tribes are sovereign nations, meaning that their legal authority to exist derives independently of the state and federal governments. However, under this definition of tribal sovereignty, they cannot act independently of the federal government, but they are immune from regulations under state law. Until the late-19th century, agreements between the U.S. government and Native American groups were generally called treaties, however these are now considered domestic legislation despite their name, and, since the passage of the Dawes Act in 1883, no new treaties with Indian tribes have been concluded.

Indian reservations

Main articles: United States territory and Territories of the United States Territories of the United States
Several islands in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea are considered insular areas of the United States.

Insular areas of the United States

Incorporated (integral part of United States)

none Inhabited

Palmyra Atoll (uninhabited, owned by The Nature Conservancy but administered by the Office of Insular Affairs; part of the United States Minor Outlying Islands) Uninhabited

Unincorporated (United States' possessions)

American Samoa (officially unorganized, although self-governing under authority of the U.S. Department of the Interior)
Guam (organized under Organic Act of 1950)
Northern Mariana Islands (commonwealth, organized under 1977 Covenant)
Puerto Rico (commonwealth, organized under terms of the 1950 Puerto Rico-Federal Relations Act)
U.S. Virgin Islands (organized under Revised Organic Act of 1954) Inhabited
Along with Palmyra Atoll, these form the United States Minor Outlying Islands:
From July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994, the U.S. administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but more recently entered into a new political relationship with all four political units (one of which is the Northern Mariana Islands listed above, the others being the three freely-associated states noted below).

Baker Island
Howland Island
Jarvis Island
Johnston Atoll
Kingman Reef
Midway Islands (administered as the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge)
Navassa Island
Wake Island Uninhabited
The freely-associated states are the three sovereign states with which the United States has entered into a Compact of Free Association. They have not been within U.S. jurisdiction since they became sovereign; however, many considered them to be dependencies of the United States until each was admitted to the United Nations in the 1990s.

Republic of the Marshall Islands
Federated States of Micronesia
Republic of Palau Freely-associated states
Each political institution defines for itself the districts from which its members are elected. Congressional districts are an example of this. State legislatures are also divided up from the territory of each state.

Government-like organs

United States territory
Geography of the United States
Territorial evolution of the United States
Territories of the United States
Historic regions of the United States
History of United States continental expansion
History of United States overseas expansion
List of regions of the United States
Organized territory
Unceded territory
Unorganized territory

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