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There is a federal trial opening today in Winston-Salem, N.C., and it could have a big impact on voting rights - not just in North Carolina, but across the country. The Justice Department and several advocacy groups are suing North Carolina over a sweeping overhaul of election law passed there two years ago. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.
MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: For decades in North Carolina, African-American voter turnout lagged far behind white turnout. Then in 2000, state lawmakers opened up an early voting period. In 2005, they said voters could cast ballots outside their assigned precinct. And in 2007, they enabled same-day registration. After those changes, attorney Allison Riggs says African-American voter registration and turnout surged.
ALLISON RIGGS: They had their intended effect of evening the playing field in the state, and the legislature yanked that away.
TOMSIC: Riggs represents the League of Women Voters - one of the groups that sued North Carolina after Republican lawmakers changed those policies two years ago. The overhaul requires voters to show government-issued ID. It eliminates out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration. And here's another change then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder highlighted, when the Justice Department announced it, too, is suing.
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ERIC HOLDER: It is especially troubling that the law would significantly narrow the early voting window that enabled hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians - including a disproportionately large number of minority voters - to cast ballots.
TOMSIC: In the past two presidential elections, about 70 percent of African-Americans who voted in North Carolina voted early. That compares to about 50 percent of whites. The overhaul cut the early voting period by seven days, although it requires most counties to still offer the same total hours they did before. Attorney Chris Brook of the North Carolina ACLU says overall...
CHRIS BROOK: The measures that were passed here in North Carolina are among the most restrictive, if not the most restrictive in the nation.
TOMSIC: Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas, for example, have passed some combination of what North Carolina did, but not altogether. Partisan politics are certainly playing a role. North Carolina has been up for grabs the last few elections, and the changes here disproportionately affect Democrats as well as African-Americans. Brook says this case...
BROOK: Will go a long way to deciding whether measures along these lines are going to be upheld in other portions of the nation.
TOMSIC: What's going on in other states is actually a key part of North Carolina's defense of the law. The state's lawyers point out Virginia doesn't have any early voting, and yet it too experienced surges in African-American turnout the past two presidential elections. Thomas Farr is a Raleigh attorney representing North Carolina. In a previous court hearing, he emphasized that the election overhaul, as it's written, makes zero changes based on race.
THOMAS FARR: How can there be unequal opportunity, when all voters have the right to register 25 days before the election? The statute itself is facially neutral.
TOMSIC: But whether the effect is neutral is likely what this case will come down to. The trial will not settle the challenge against voter ID. North Carolina lawmakers watered down the ID requirement last month, and the judge is giving attorneys more time to sort out how that affects their case. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic.
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