During summer vacation car rides as a kid, I remember the thrill of seeing an unusual license plate from a faraway state. There were 50 possible plates to see (plus D.C.) each with distinct colors and often the state motto. Today the game of license plate bingo has gotten incredibly complex.
By my count, there are currently 8,291 different vehicle license plates offered by the 50 states and the District of Columbia. States now offer a vast menu of personalized plate options for a dizzying array of organizations, professions, sports teams, causes and other groups.
My count was conducted over June and July 2023, so this should be considered a snapshot, as I’m sure some plates have changed already.
For years, members of the military and veterans have been able to pick plates reflecting the honors they have received and the missions they have served in. Drivers have also been able to pick plates drawing attention to a large number of medical conditions such as breast cancer, downs syndrome, diabetes and autism, raising funds for various foundations through registration fees.
Doctors, first responders and even amateur radio operators have long been able to pick a plate reflecting their affiliations. But today, if you are a realtor, accountant, architect, chiropractor, pharmacist or optician you too can share your profession with a customized plate in several states.
Of course not just anyone can grab many of these specialized plates. Proof of service and professional credentials are required to qualify for many of these plates. Some are reserved for members of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate.
You can even find the face of Dolly Parton on Tennessee’s “Dollywood Foundation For Children” plate, and don’t miss aging rocker Alice Cooper who you can find on Arizona’s “Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock” plate (raising funds for his non-profit that provides free music lessons for kids).
Search all 8,291 License Plates
Too Many Plates?
Maryland ranks 19th in the United States with an estimated 2022 population of 6.1 million residents. But Maryland leads the pack when it comes to the number of license plates it offers drivers. I counted 989 distinct plates listed on the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles’ website.
Maryland caving enthusiasts will be glad to know they can pick a “National Speleological Society” plate (although only one such plate was issued between 2018 and 2022). Likewise the “American Sewing Guild”, “Baltimore Yacht Club” and “Westie Rescue, Inc.” are among the organizations with only a single plate issued during this time period. Maryland “Barbershop Quartet Singers” did slightly better with three plates issued in this time period, just ahead of “Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s” two plates.
Texas, the second most populous state with nearly five times the population of Maryland offers the second largest number of license plates, coming in at 476 designs. Texas has taken a more practical approach to accommodating the demand for custom plates, outsourcing the whole effort to a private company called My Plates.
Hawaii offers the fewest number of plates, with just 14 designs to pick from (plus decals with messages drivers can attach). But a small number of plates offered doesn’t mean lower quality plates. In 2022, the Automobile License Plate Collector’s Association chose Hawaii’s beautiful “Polynesian Voyaging” as the “Best New Plate”. The “Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park” is also quite beautiful.
The explosion of full color images on special plates has also created some concerns for law enforcement’s use of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), which automatically scan the plates of cars as they drive down the road or through tolls. Many police cars are equipped with ALPRs that scoop up all of the plates that drive by. A report by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators warned that high contrast backgrounds in these special plates can cause readability issues for ALPRs.
Some states have tried to reign in the sheer number of new plates being proposed each year, but with little success. In 2010, the Florida Senate tried to restrict plates only to designs that had at least 4,000 pre-orders, but the measure did not advance.
Animals and Conservation
Some of the most popular special plates feature animals and messages about nature conservation. Whales, sharks, moose, salamanders, eagles, deer, butterflies, salmon, trout and loons can be found on plates around the country. Fees from many of these animal plates help fund state conservation efforts.
Animal conservation plates were some of Florida’s most lucrative license plate designs for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The “Sea Turtle” plate brought in $2.4 million, “Save the Manatee” brought in $1.3 million and “Protect Wild Dolphins” brought in $1.1 million in revenue. Texas’ “Horned Lizard” plate raised $6.5 million in fiscal year 2019. California’s “Protect Our Coast & Ocean” featuring a whale tail pulled in $1.1 million in 2021.
License plates have been the subject of dozens of legal cases challenging the messages imprinted on them by the state. In 1976, a New Hampshire resident successfully pleaded his case to the U.S. Supreme Court that he had the right to obscure the state’s motto “Live Free or Die” on his plates, which conflicted with his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Recently, a group of atheists in Mississippi sued the state when the governor changed the state seal to include the words “In God We Trust”, which appeared on the standard license plate design. The plaintiffs objected to the fact that there was no alternative design without the slogan without having to pay an extra fee for a special plate. The court found that the plaintiff’s free speech argument was valid, but recently the Governor introduced a new standard plate that does not mention God, rendering the case moot.
“I consider it a victory because the Governor’s previous comments suggest he would not have chosen a design without a religious reference if it were not for the pressure that was applied to him,” wrote Jason Alan Griggs, one of the plaintiffs in the case in an email to Beautiful Public Data.
A 2016 report from the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL) warned state administrators of the controversy that can come with political messages on special plates. “Specialty license plate designs may encounter resistance, however. While courts have consistently stated that license plates are private speech, the fact that they are issued by government agencies can incite much controversy and debate,” said the report.
But the full scope of American political expression is not evenly distributed in the plates offered today.
Anti-abortion license plates such as “Choose Life” can be found in 34 states. Only four states appear to offer pro-abortion rights plates. Nebraska and Pennsylvania offer Planned Parenthood plates, with Nebraska’s displaying “My Body, My Choice” on the tag. Virginia has a “Trust Women, Respect Choice” plate and Alaska offers “Pro-Family, Pro-Choice”.
At least nine states offer Revolutionary War Gadsden Flag “Don’t Tread on Me” plates. 22 states offer either “God Bless America” or “In God We Trust”.
I could only find three plates in the whole dataset that represented the LGBTQ community: “Indiana Youth Group”, “South Carolina Equality” and “Maryland Equality”.
Texas offers a “Juneteenth” plate, and Arkansas has a Martin Luther King, Jr. plate. I couldn’t find any plates related to Black Lives Matters, which was surprising considering the scale of the civil rights movement in recent years.
Big Money for Charities and for the State
Some organizations pull in huge amounts of money from the fees shared by the state. California’s well-publicized “Arts Plate” which costs $50 initially with a $40 annual renewal (or $103 initially with an $83 annual renewal for personalized plates) pulled in $2.2 million for the California Arts Council non-profit in 2019. In 2022, the non-profit Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation raised $556,000 from its North Carolina specialty plate.
License plate fees also are major sources of revenue for state motor vehicle departments. Florida pulled in over $44 million just from specialty license plates in the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
Made By Prison Labor
Yes, license plates are still made by cheap prison labor in most states. 80% of all license plates issued in the U.S. today were made by state prisoners, with only 12 states opting out of the practice. According to a 2022 ACLU report on prison labor in the U.S., many states offer no pay at all to prisoners, while the average hourly wage across the country was between 13 and 52 cents per hour.
For this post, I had to scrape data from 51 different state motor vehicle agencies. Every site was different, which created a challenge. Some sites like Indiana‘s and Washington‘s were very nicely built, with easy to read lists of plates, large plate images and clean descriptive text. Other states (I’m looking at you New Hampshire and Massachusetts) did the minimum and just linked to a PDF with low-res blurry thumbnails of the plates.
I filed six freedom of information requests seeking plate issuance and revenue numbers, while some states helpfully published these numbers on their websites. You can find the responses in my GitHub repository for this story, along with the dataset and thumbnail images.
Using some command line graphics (ImageMagick) I resized the plate images to a uniform 2:1 ratio and made the sizes consistent.
I used Jupyter Notebooks and matplotlib to analyze the data and make the chart.
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– Jon Keegan (Threads: @jonkeeganstories)