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Judge asked to block North Carolina voting changes before midterms

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina's overhauled election law should be halted before the midterm elections in November to avoid discrimination against African Americans and young voters, lawyers for the Justice Department and civil rights groups said on Thursday.

Attorneys for the state argued the changes in dispute apply equally to all races and said challengers had presented only speculation that some voters would see their ballot access unreasonably restricted or denied.

The federal government and other opponents of the sweeping voter law revision passed by the state's Republican-led legislature in 2013 are seeking a preliminary injunction to block key parts ahead of a full trial next year.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder did not immediately rule at the end of the four-day hearing in Winston-Salem but said he would issue a written opinion soon.

North Carolina is among several states forced to defend changes to voting protocol, including its requirement for voters to show photo identification at the polls starting in 2016. Judges in recent months have overturned photo ID laws in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Similar to voting rights battles nationwide, race and politics have been at the forefront of the North Carolina fight. Republicans argue tighter rules are needed to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats say the revisions target likely Democratic voters: minorities, the poor and college students.

The state shortened its early voting period by seven days, ended same-day registration, banned provisional ballots cast outside the correct precinct from being counted and ended a program allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote.

"African Americans came to rely on these mechanisms of voting and the legislature knew that," Justice Department lawyer Bert Russ said.

Lawmakers "took a sledgehammer to the early voting period when no one was asking for these changes," he added.

Lawyer Marc Elias said the college students he represents would be irreparably harmed by reduced early voting and stricter ID requirements. His young clients are fighting the law along with groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Attorneys for North Carolina said the law got its first test in the state's primary election in May and no disproportionate burdens on African-American voters were revealed.

State legislators "want everyone in North Carolina to have the right to vote on equal terms," said lawyer Thomas Farr, who argued voters would adapt to the revised law.

Curtis Gatewood, an NAACP community organizer who attended the hearing, criticized lawmakers for taking actions he said would make it harder for people to vote.

"Just because you have a law that you want people to conform to doesn't mean it's a just law," Gatewood said.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott and Eric Walsh)

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