When that federal three-judge panel ruled that Alabama’s redistricting plan passed by the legislature in a 2021 special session violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it should not have been a surprise.

On the one hand, it must be remembered that the Census Bureau was late generating the numbers, forcing legislators to produce maps in record time, with minimal input.

And just as significant is that, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the Middle District of Alabama received the most redistricting lawsuits in the country between the years 1960-2019 with 43.

(For the record, the Northern District of Illinois was second with a combined 42 complaints, followed by the Southern District of Mississippi with 37.)

So that the redistricting plan went to court so quickly was expected; Democrat members of the Alabama legislature pretty much guaranteed a challenge was coming during the November special session when the maps were presented and passed.

But while lawsuits that challenge redistricting most often claim that new boundaries are drawn to limit or diminish the political power of minorities, the Maryland research found that the real reasons might have less to do with race and more to do with attempting to change the party in power.

“We are saying that where litigation occurs is not always a sign of where big injustices lie,’’ said James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who is the lead author of the paper, “The Geography of Law: Understanding the Origin of State and Federal Redistricting Cases,” published last August in Political Research Quarterly.

“Similarly, you can’t conclude that a map is completely fair just because there is no litigation. Litigation is deployed as a political strategy - not just where supposed injustice exists but to bring about changes in the balance of power.”

Changing the balance of power.

One of the interesting bits of testimony in this most recent Alabama redistricting case came from one of the plaintiffs, Benjamin Jones, the CEO of Montgomery Community Action Agency. Jones was asked what kind of representative he believed would best represent the interests of Alabama’s minority community.

“One that would vote for (President Joe Biden’s) Build Back Better plan, the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Plan, expansion of Medicare,” said Jones.

That’s not a matter of race, but of politics. That view, in essence, is an attempt to disenfranchise voters that don’t agree with Jones’ political persuasion, Black or White. It’s saying a Black Republican – like state representative Kenneth Paschal from District 73 – should not be allowed to represent Black voters in Alabama.

On the other hand, there is no ignoring that Alabama has a history of disadvantaging Black voters. One of the principles of our system of government is to reject the tyranny that John Stuart Mill called “social tyranny,’’ or the tyranny of 50 percent plus one. That is why we're not a democracy but a republic, to give some protection to the minority.

(It’s also why the Electoral College is still important, giving some measure of power to those who don’t live in more populated areas of the country).

The great and growing division within this country is as much because of gerrymandering – drawing lines on a map to give one party power - as anything. And it’s not just a Republican thing or a Southern thing. One of the key findings in the University of Maryland study was that while the news media frequently focuses on redistricting cases in the South, these lawsuits also are common in many northern states, as well as California and Washington.

The Maryland study says, “The filing of redistricting litigation is highly responsive to hypercompetitive political environments, suggesting that parties pursue judicial intervention vigorously when political power hangs in the balance and not simply due to demographic changes associated with decennial population measurement.”

Out of 435 House Districts in the United States, probably fewer than a fourth are truly competitive. Practically speaking, what that means is that to beat the Democrat incumbent in a Democrat-majority district, your best strategy is to run further to the political ‘left’ of the incumbent; just as to beat a Republican in a strongly Republican district, you would probably have to be even further politically ‘right.’ That makes elections essentially campaigns of extremes.

And extremes divide people.

The idea behind districts is to make sure that people who live near each other, and who are likely to have similar interests, are represented by the same person. Of course, it is never that neat or simple. Congressional districts are made up of roughly 708,000 people (using a round figure of 308 million US population divided by 435 house seats). Communities of like-minded people don’t always reside in neat geometrically conforming shapes.

But we shouldn’t be afraid of ending up with competitive districts, which would force candidates to appeal more to the center of the voting public than the extremes.

The problem is that it is too easy to presuppose prejudice, that all Blacks – as Jones seems to believe – desire to see the agenda of a Democrat president carried out. The last national election proved there are growing shifts in demographics within political parties. The number of minorities – Blacks, Hispanics – who are no longer wedded to one way of thinking is expanding, as evidenced by the voting breakdown in the last election.

Paschal’s win in Shelby County, and Chris Horn’s candidacy for Secretary of State as a Republican – and the reception he has received around the state - is evidence that the state is changing; maybe not as fast as it should, but certainly not stuck as far in the past as some would have us believe.

We don’t need predominantly Republican districts or predominantly Democrat districts, predominantly Black districts or White. We need districts that hold elected officials accountable to popular majorities, without losing minority preferences entirely.

Ray Melick is Editor-in-Chief of 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.