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North Carolina voting changes to go on trial in 2015

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - Challenges to North Carolina's new voter regulations that limit early voting and require voters to show photo identification at the polls will not go to trial until after the 2014 mid-term elections, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

The groups protesting the state's new law will have a chance, however, to argue for some of its provisions to be blocked before the full case is heard, Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake said at a hearing in Winston-Salem.

The law's opponents had sought a quicker resolution to the legal battle. A trial ahead of next November's elections would help prevent "irreparable loss" for some voters, said an attorney for the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It's going to determine whether people actually have the right to vote," said NAACP lawyer Daniel Donovan. "The clock is ticking."

Despite being on opposite sides of the case, attorneys for both the state and federal government asked for the trial to be held in 2015, saying the complex and data-intensive nature of the case required more time to prepare.

The state takes seriously any potential infringement of voting rights but also the right for laws passed by elected leaders to be put into effect, said Senior Deputy Attorney General Alexander Peters.

Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed North Carolina's sweeping voting changes into law in August, prompting a flurry of lawsuits by various parties, including the U.S. Justice Department, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

The law's critics argue that reducing early voting days, eliminating same-day registration and imposing a photo-identification requirement for in-person voting make it harder for minorities and others who are likely to vote for Democratic candidates to cast their ballots.

In its suit, the Justice Department said black residents comprised 23 percent of North Carolina's registered voters but accounted for 34 percent of registered voters who did not have a driver's license or other ID provided by the state's motor vehicles department.

Republican lawmakers said the changes were needed to combat voter fraud.

The law takes effect on January 1, though the photo ID requirement does not begin until 2016.

In a statement after the hearing, McCrory noted that members of the public were required to present a photo ID in order to enter the federal courthouse.

"This presents the strongest case yet that requiring a photo ID to vote is common sense, even for Washington lawyers and liberal activists - and this argument will be upheld regardless of the trial date," the governor said.

The judge said the groups challenging the law could pursue legal action that likely would result in a hearing next summer to determine if parts of the law should be temporarily blocked.

A full trial would be held during the summer of 2015 at the earliest.

Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan is among those up for re-election in North Carolina in 2014. The outcome of her race could help determine whether Republicans or Democrats hold a majority in the U.S. Senate for the last two years of President Barack Obama's final term.

Thursday's hearing drew several dozen people who said they oppose the new voting provisions and believe the legal limbo will confuse voters.

"This is not about just black and white," said the Reverend William Barber II, president of the state's NAACP chapter. "It's about fundamental democracy."

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)

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