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LGBT community must engage in fight over voting rights

There was much to celebrate when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last month. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and its allies have worked long and hard to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the court's decision to end DOMA was a great leap forward in the fight against injustice.

While we celebrate, we must not forget that just one day earlier the court also struck a major blow to equality, tearing down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, which ensures that minority communities have a voice in America's legislative bodies.

The Voting Rights Act prohibits state and local governments from enacting voting restrictions or procedures that discriminate based on race. To enforce these protections, the act requires jurisdictions with a history of race-based voting discrimination to clear any changes in voting laws with the Department of Justice. But the Supreme Court struck down the formula that determines who needs clearance, meaning these jurisdictions are free to enact discriminatory laws. Any federal oversight will come after the fact when the damage has already been done. Since the ruling, seven states have announced plans to enact stricter voting rules.

We must reject these efforts through the power of our expanded, energized and mobilized coalition of freedom fighters. The defining legacy of this decade will be that we no longer live in world where one minority community wages efforts to defend itself alone. We have transcended. We are a rainbow coalition of social justice advocates pressing for fairness, equality and opportunity for all of our neighbors.

The architecture for this new movement was sketched in Maryland's successful efforts to pass marriage equality and the Dream Act, which allows some undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Our campaigns were waged arm-in-arm with the labor movement, progressive faith leaders, the NAACP, and the LGBT and Latino communities united in purpose and mission. The coalition then successfully defended these wins in a popular vote at the ballot box last November. We knew that to win in 2012 would pave the way for future victories like a repeal of the death penalty and common sense gun safety measures.

The movements toward marriage equality and humane treatment of immigrants were immeasurably strengthened when they came to be seen as part of the broader cause of civil rights. Now the LGBT and immigrant communities must remain engaged in that struggle and fight against encroachments on the guarantee of equal voting rights, one of the signature achievements of the civil rights movement.

We must not only work to defend access to the ballot in any state threatening minority participation but also to advance voting rights where opportunities exist to showcase our ability to make positive change.

We can build on Maryland's successful early voting efforts by expanding to additional locations and making them more accessible. We should allow same day registration on election day to further encourage participation. We can ensure that our state and federal legislative districts are drawn fairly and independently and that Annapolis operates with complete transparency.

As we ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard and feels represented, we will benefit from more voices as we address the biggest challenges ahead of us. How do we enable the private sector to promote growth while still protecting the rights of our workers? How do we ensure that Maryland's public schools are excellent in every community? How do we promote energy resources that create economic growth while ensuring clean air and clean water for generations to come? How do we break a cradle-to-prison pipeline that sends too many of our youths into a broken criminal justice system and perpetuates cycles of poverty?

We cannot adequately address these daunting challenges without assuring that every member of our community has an opportunity to offer solutions. That is only possible when we guarantee full and equal access to our democracy. All of us who celebrated this great victory on DOMA must now join together to work and to organize until all forms of injustice are eradicated from our society. That movement begins now, and it begins with undoing the great damage the Supreme Court wrought by striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, is an openly gay member of the Maryland General Assembly. Her email is heather@heathermizeur.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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