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'Things have changed': Former Blaine County man reimagines Montana county assignments with current populations

The new rankings would put Yellowstone County at No. 1
Old rankings to new rankings by county
Posted at 6:17 PM, Jan 21, 2023

BILLINGS — Montana's unique license plate system represents a lot more than just numbers to many Montanans.

The first number or two on standard plates in Montana coincide with the county the vehicle is registered in.

The county was typically assigned this number based on population size, but some were at random.

Recently, former Blaine County resident Cody McCracken published his findings on social media from a recent data-driven quest to update the rankings.

New county number rankings based on population size
New county number rankings based on population size

“I thought when the 2020 Census came out, if this is based off of population, how have things changed? Is Blaine County the same? Is Yellowstone now number one? And it turns out things have changed quite a bit,” McCracken said on Friday. "It shows how the population center has shifted from the Eastern part of the state with those counties all dropping, to the Western part of the state.”

In the new rankings, Yellowstone County would be ranked No. 1, formally at three.

McCracken said he used a combination of published data from sources like the US Census and old newspaper articles to draw his conclusions.

Great Falls Tribune article from 1981
Great Falls Tribune article from 1981

But McCracken said these numbers mean a lot to Montanans like himself. McCracken grew up in Chinook, Montana, before moving to Billings to study at MSUB. McCracken then moved out of state for law school, and now lives and works in Washington D.C.

“It’s not just a number to Montanans. It’s really a cultural identifier and it’s kind of who we are,” McCracken said. “We associate so much of who we are with these little numbers on our license plate, it’s really cool to see people care so much about it."

And local Billings residents like Erica Lanter and Melle Sands-Snyder agree.

“I’ll see someone with a five or a six and you automatically know where they’re from,” Lanter said on Saturday. “Change is good, let’s be one." “And we are number one,” added Sands-Snyder.

But residents in some counties might not be too happy about these new rankings.

According to McCracken's findings, Silver Bow County, home to Butte, would drop from first to eighth. But some counties, like Powder River County, home to Broadus, weren't all originally assigned by population size. And the answer as to why is seemingly a mystery.

“Like most people, I thought they were all based on population back then. But it turns out, for the most part, that is true, but there’s some that are completely not tied to population at all. Lincoln County was 56, but they were never last in population. Powder River County in Broadus was never number nine in population," McCracken said. “I went back and looked at newspapers from the 1930s. Even back then they said very little of why these numbers were picked. None of them really said anything."

Old rankings to new rankings by county
Old rankings to new rankings by county

And there was only one county that stayed the same after nearly a century—like Hill County, home to Havre.

“I think we’re all aware of where the people are moving to and where the biggest growth is at. And that kind of lined up with what I saw," McCracken said. "And then on the East where there's not as much growth in places like Hill County, which has the exact same number as they did in 1930.”

While the new rankings show change, McCracken said he does not think it will impact the license plate system.

"Thankfully, I think the universal opinion is that we will never change these numbers. And I think that’s a good thing,” McCracken said. “A lot of people are very adamant that they should never change these."

McCracken said he has received a large response regarding license plate changes following his posts.

“Montanans really love these license plate numbers. I did not think it would be to this degree, but it’s great to see,” McCracken said. “I knew Montanans loved their numbers, but I didn’t think I would be on TV talking about this. So I think that highlights just how interesting this is to people.”

To view McCracken's original post, please click here.

"Like most Montanans, I just love the license plate system. We have a lot of cultural pride in our numbers," McCracken said. "My favorite number is 24 because Blaine County, my home county, is 24. Every time I see 24, I think about home."