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Justice Department Sues North Carolina Over Voter ID Law

(This post was updated at 5 p.m.)

The Justice Department is suing North Carolina over that state's restrictive new voting law. The lawsuit takes aim at provisions that limit early voting periods and require a government photo ID as an illegal form of discrimination against minorities at the ballot box.

Federal authorities are challenging four parts of the state law, passed soon after the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act in June. Those provisions include: the state's decision to cut back on early voting by a week; the elimination of same-day registration during that early voting period; the prohibition on counting certain provisional ballots that are not prepared in a voter's specific precinct; and the adoption of a strict photo identification requirement without protections for voters who lack that required ID.

Update at 5 p.m. ET: N.C. Governor Criticizes Lawsuit

After the Justice Department filed its lawsuit, Gov. Pat McCrory called Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to challenge North Carolina's voter ID law a federal overreach that has no merit.

"I believe if showing a voter ID is good enough and fair enough for our own president in Illinois, then it's good enough for the people in North Carolina," McCrory said.

Our original post continues:

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the case at a Monday news conference in Washington.

"The Justice Department expects to show that the clear and intended effects of these changes would contract the electorate and result in unequal access to the participation in the political process on account of race," he said.

It marks the third time this year that the Justice Department has taken action to enforce portions of the Voting Rights Act since the high court voted 5-4 to gut the law's centerpiece, a system that required states with a history of discrimination to seek pre-approval from the federal government before making any election changes.

Forty counties in North Carolina had been covered under that old system, and the new Justice Department case will ask a court to reimpose an unspecified period of U.S. oversight under Section 3 of the VRA, a process known as "bail in."

The new U.S. case adds to a growing docket of challenges from groups including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are suing North Carolina under existing parts of the Voting Rights Act. Like the Justice Department lawsuit, those cases argue that the state is imposing discriminatory burdens on poor, elderly and minority voters, and abridging their right to vote.

A study by North Carolina's Department of Motor Vehicles suggests that the voter ID requirement disproportionately affects black Americans who are already registered to vote. Other data in the state suggests that more than 300,000 registered voters lack a driver's license or another form of special ID.

At a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in early September, Holder noted that he and President Obama had met with civil rights activists to bemoan the Supreme Court ruling and to find a way forward.

"We will not allow the court's action to be interpreted as 'open season' for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights," Holder said. "We will not hesitate to take appropriately aggressive action against any jurisdiction that attempts to hinder access to the franchise."

North Carolina's law, enacted and signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory only weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, drew nationwide attention from civil rights advocates. But McCrory has said the law merely represents "common sense reform" and helps ensure integrity in the voting system. McCrory points out that the law will not take effect until 2016, giving people a lot of time to get state-approved ID.

Voting rights experts already have raised doubts about a Justice Department challenge to the Texas voter ID law filed earlier this summer and those same questions will emerge all over again in the new North Carolina dispute. Now that the decades-old federal pre-approval system is in chaos, the burden rests with the U.S. government and minority voters to demonstrate that the new laws were enacted with a "discriminatory intent" in order to force North Carolina back under federal oversight. That hurdle is much higher in the law than merely showing that the law has a "discriminatory effect" on minorities' voting strength.

Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which sued North Carolina last month, tells NPR it's the "piling on" of regressive voting changes that makes the law so onerous for minorities.

"Each of these changes on their own would already be considerably harmful to the voting rights of North Carolinians," Hair says. "Taken together, this is the worst voter suppression law in the country. ... It is no mere coincidence that it makes voting disproportionately harder for voters of color, young people, seniors and low-income people."

And past cases suggest that when it comes to voter ID laws, the federal government has a difficult road. A U.S. appeals court upheld the Georgia law in 2009. And a year earlier, a divided Supreme Court led by then-Justice John Paul Stevens said the Indiana voter ID law passed muster so long as a state could offer a nondiscriminatory rationale.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.