Flipping one House seat, Democrats now represent twice as much of the U.S.

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One of the long-standing truisms in American politics is that dirt doesn’t vote. Ours is a big country in both land area and population, making it tricky at times to accurately represent election results. We’re all familiar with those maps of presidential election results, which in recent years have been seas of red even as the votes themselves leaned distinctly blue. (One former U.S. president is particularly fond of this discrepancy.)

Recognizing all of that, something interesting happened this week that’s related to this phenomenon. The victory of Mary Peltola in Alaska’s special election for its sole House seat meant that her Democratic Party suddenly doubled the amount of U.S. dirt it represents — even as it added only one-fifth of 1 percent of the population to its total.

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The special election was unusual in a number of ways. The death of Rep. Don Young (R) in March meant that a seat he had held for nearly 50 years was suddenly vacant. The election was the first federal contest since Alaska implemented a ranked-choice voting system, meaning that a race that in previous years would have been between one Democrat and one Republican (and perhaps an independent or third-party candidate) was suddenly more open.

Peltola won not because she was the first choice for a majority of voters but because she was the preferred candidate for more than half as the race narrowed. And her win reshaped the national map quite dramatically, if only literally.

At the start of the 117th Congress in January 2021, the Democratic Party held 222 seats. Thanks to the party’s overperformance in heavily urban areas — geographically small places where a lot of people live — that majority made up a bit less than one-sixth of the country’s area.

With Peltola’s win (and factoring in other changes since January 2021, such as the addition of two other new members later this month), the amount of dirt represented by the Democrats surges to almost a third of U.S. land area. (For the purposes of this exercise, I am including in the land-area calculations only places with voting members of the House, meaning no D.C., Puerto Rico or other territories.) Win one seat, double geographic representation.

This is mostly an interesting trivia question answer, to be fair. But tracking this statistic over time is interesting. I went back and pulled the same numbers for each new Congress at the start of the past four decades. Here’s the evolution.

Notice that the percentage of area represented by Democrats has fallen even as the percentage of seats held has stayed flat or increased. That’s a function in part of how compact many urban districts have gotten.

If we look at area represented relative to seats held, you can see that while the average density for Democrats has fallen, the average for Republicans hasn’t changed much. (I’ll point out that these charts use different vertical scales; the value for Democrats has always been substantially lower.)

And then on the right in each graph, the big shift represented by Peltola’s victory.

Again, this doesn’t really mean much politically, if it means anything at all. But part of the reason that the average for Republicans hasn’t fallen much is that the party has consistently held Alaska. Take Alaska out of the mix, and the GOP graph looks like this.

In other words, the previous chart looked the way it did primarily because of Alaska. Or, more precisely, primarily because of Don Young.



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