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New voter law draws opposition in North Carolina

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - Critics of North Carolina's new voter law argued on Monday for blocking key provisions such as fewer early voting days and the end of same-day registration before November's midterm elections to avoid disenfranchising African-American voters.

Attorneys for the state countered that the overhauled law was tested during the statewide primary election in May and results showed no disproportionate hardships being imposed on minority voters.

The case before a federal judge in Winston-Salem this week is the latest in a series of legal battles over the racial and political impact of states' changes to electoral protocol. In recent months, judges have handed several victories to challengers, overturning laws requiring voters to show photo identification in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arkansas.

The photo ID requirement adopted last year by North Carolina's Republican-led legislature takes effect in 2016. But those who oppose it say it already has caused confusion and want election workers barred from discussing it at the polls this fall.

Challengers also are asking U.S. District Judge Thom Schroeder to put on hold parts of the law that shorten the early voting period by seven days, eliminate same-day registration, bar ballots cast out of the correct precinct from being counted and end a program allowing pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Opponents argue the changes were designed to discourage voting by African Americans, who typically vote Democratic and use same-day registration and early voting at higher rates than white voters.

The challengers, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Justice Department, said the court needs to act ahead of a full trial next year to ensure that no eligible voters are denied their right to cast a ballot.

"This is not about voter integrity," the Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said of the state's law. "This is about voter suppression."

But lawyers for North Carolina said fears of lower participation by minorities or longer lines at polls proved unfounded during the May primary.

The challenged provisions were in place, with the exception of the photo ID requirement, which supporters say will combat voter fraud. Thirty-four states have laws requiring voters to show some form of ID at the polls.

"In this case, there can be no discriminatory effect on African-American voters, or other minority groups because the challenged provisions ... apply equally to all voters regardless of race," attorneys for the state said in court briefs.

The law's opponents packed a courtroom for the first day of the preliminary injunction hearing and planned a rally afterward to encourage people to mobilize and register voters this summer, organizers said.

The rally is a spinoff of the "Moral Monday" protests held in North Carolina after Republicans took control of the state legislature and governor's office for the first time in more than a century, enacting a host of laws that some complain have harmed residents.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott and Gunna Dickson)

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