The term is used in two ways.
See main article: Survey township.
Survey townships are generally referred to by a number based on the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). A reference to the township will look something like "Township 2 North Range 3 East", and the use is fully explained in the PLSS article. Townships are marked on the U.S. Geological Survey maps of the United States of America.
These townships are normally a rectangle approximately 6 miles on a side with boundaries conforming to meridians and parallels within established limits, containing thirty-six sections, some of which are designated to take up the convergence of the east and west township boundary lines or range lines. Irregular townships with fewer than 36 sections have been created to correct for the Earth's curvature and survey errors. They exist in some form in all states other than the original 13 colonies, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maine.
This kind of township is similar to geographic townships in the Province of Ontario.
See main article: Civil township.
The township government is a local unit of government, originally rural in application. They are geographic and political subdivisions of a county. The township is identified by a name, such as Washington Township. The responsibilities and the form of the township government is specified by the state legislature.
The most common form of township government has an elected board of trustees or supervisors. Some additional offices, such as Clerk or Constable, may also be elected. The most common responsibilities include such things as road maintenance, land use planning, and trash collection.
In most midwestern states, a civil township often corresponds to a single survey township, but in many cases, especially in less populated areas, the civil township may be made up of all or portions of several survey townships. In areas where there are natural features such as a lakeshore or large river, the civil township boundaries may follow the geographic features rather than the survey township. Municipalities such as cities may incorporate or annex land in a township, which is then generally removed from township government (although this varies--Indiana is the only state where every portion of the state is part of a township government, regardless of other municipalities, while in other states, some types of municipalities like villages remain a part of the township while cities are not. As urban areas expand, a civil township may entirely disappear - see, for example, Mill Creek Township, Hamilton County, Ohio. In other expanding urban areas, the township may incorporate itself into a city; this can be seen in the numerous square cities of Hennepin County, Minnesota.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are different; these states have civil townships that are not based on the PLSS survey system, but on the older Metes and bounds survey system. A New Jersey township differs only in name from other municipalities: its boundaries are fixed, it is an incorporated body, and it is free to adopt another form of government. The Federal Government has frequently failed to allow for this; some New Jersey municipalities, such as the Township of the Borough of Verona or Township of South Orange Village http://www.southorange.org/, changed their names to qualify for additional Federal aid.
Towns and townships are considered minor civil divisions of counties by the United States Census Bureau for statistical purposes. According to the Census Bureau, in 2002 town or township government applied to 16,504 organized governments in the following 20 states:
This categorization includes governmental units officially designated as "Towns" in the New England states, New York, and Wisconsin, some plantations in Maine and locations in New Hampshire. In Minnesota, the terms town and township are used interchangeably with regard to township governments. Although towns in the six New England states and New York, and townships in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, are legally termed municipal corporations, perform municipal-type functions, and frequently serve densely populated urban areas, they have no necessary relation to concentration of population, and are thus counted for census purposes as town or township governments. Even in states beyond New England, townships often serve urbanized areas and provide municipal services typically provided by incorporated municipalities. Michigan has created charter townships as a separate type of government to allow greater flexibility for township governments to serve urbanized populations.
The count of 16,504 organized township governments does not include unorganized township areas (where the township may exist in name only, but has no organized government) or where the townships are coextensive with cities and the cities have absorbed the township functions. It also does not include townships in Iowa, which are not separate governments, but are classified as subordinate agencies of county governments.
Of the 16,504 town or township governments, only 1,179 (7.1 percent) had as many as 10,000 inhabitants in the 2000 census and 52.4 percent of all towns or townships had fewer than 1000 inhabitants. There was a decline in the number of town or township governments from 16,629 in 1997 to 16,504 in 2002. Nearly all of the decline involved townships in the Midwest.
Because township government is defined by each state, the use of this form also varies by state. States using a township form include for following: