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“Now why would I want to do that?” — Gov. Bill Janklow, when asked if the license plate numbers should be updated.

      A black Ford pickup sits in the driveway and my mom perches contentedly on the fender, dressed up and smiling happily.

The photo is unmarked, but the license plate year says 1939, and the number “43” identifies the county as Lyman.

That changed in 1956 with a revamped numbering system and Lyman County has worn “45” for the past 60 years.

Now that the new plates are out, I wondered if any consideration was given to bringing them up to date. In that 1956 revision, the top nine populated counties were assigned numbers 1 through 9 in decreasing order.  The remaining counties were numbered in alphabetical order.

Minnehaha and Pennington were No. 1 and 2 and still are today, but the growth on both the east and west ends of the state has rendered the other placements inaccurate.

For example, Beadle County is still “4” on the new plates, but if population were the guide, as intended, Beadle would be relegated to “11” on the alphabetical list that begins with No. 10, Aurora County.

Brown, now No. 3, would be replaced by Lincoln and drop to No. 4, and Davison, now No. 8, sinks into the alphabetized list.

So, why hasn’t the list by population been updated?

“It ends up opening a can of worms,” said Jonathan Harms, director of information for the Department of Revenue.

Kelsey Pritchard of the governor’s office concurred: “It wasn’t discussed,” she said. “It might cause confusion.”

A better explanation is offered by Marshall Damgaard, who was on staff for Gov. Bill Janklow in the 1980s. As designs for a new license plate were being discussed, Damgaard asked if the top nine numbers should be changed to reflect county populations.

“Now why would I want to do that?” Janklow responded.

“To be accurate,” Damgaard recalls saying.

“How many votes did you get last time out?” Janklow rejoined.

Point being, think of the outcry from Huron and Mitchell – and their counties – if they fell out of the top nine. Janklow thought it would be wise to leave the numbers in place.

“Some are just resistant to change,” Damgaard said.

The newcomers to the top nine are Lincoln, which was 44th in population in 1956, and Meade, which was 46th. Both reflect growing population centers, east and west.

The new plates, though nicely designed, still aren’t accurate and perhaps never will be.

Jan. 20, 2016