The Justice Department filed suit Monday to block North Carolina's new voter-ID law, with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. accusing state Republicans of engaging in a deliberate effort to suppress black voter turnout.
Mr. Holder also warned state officials across the nation not to adopt voting laws that could hurt minorities, and he said Republicans' worries about voter fraud are "not real."
"This concern about vote fraud is something that is made up in order to justify these restrictive and I think, at a minimum, partisan actions," Mr. Holder said in a news conference at the Justice Department. "It pains me to see the voting rights of my fellow citizens negatively impacted by actions predicated on a rationale that is tenuous at best and on concerns that we all know in fact are not real."
The move is the latest effort by the Obama administration to intervene on behalf of minority voters after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. Earlier this year, Justice's Civil Rights Division filed two lawsuits against Texas over its redistricting plan and voter-ID law, and Mr. Holder said he'll likely take other states to court.
"Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation," Mr. Holder said.
Mr. Holder and the assistant U.S. attorneys from North Carolina asked a federal court to block the state from enforcing four provisions of its voting law, including a photo ID requirement. The suit also seeks to reimpose a requirement that North Carolina obtain "preclearance" from the federal government before making any changes to its election laws.
The other disputed portions of the law are a shortened early voting period, from 17 days to 10; elimination of same-day voter registration during early voting periods; and new restrictions on the counting of certain provisional ballots. Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature in Raleigh for the first time in more than a century.
North Carolina State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, both Republicans, blasted Mr. Holder's action.
"The Obama Justice Department's baseless claims about North Carolina's election reform law are nothing more than an obvious attempt to quash the will of the voters and hinder a hugely popular voter ID requirement," they said in a statement.
"The law was designed to improve consistency, clarity and uniformity at the polls and it brings North Carolina's election system in line with a majority of other states. We are confident it protects the right of all voters, as required by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions," the two men said.
U.S. Sen. Kay R. Hagan, North Carolina Democrat, hailed the Justice Department's move. On her Twitter account, she wrote, "I applaud DOJ's decision to challenge new voter access restrictions in NC that would build barriers to voting."
In June, the Supreme Court voted to do away with a provision in the Voting Rights Act that required North Carolina, Texas and numerous other states and jurisdictions to obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing any election laws. Since that ruling, Republican-controlled states have passed new laws that they say are necessary to guard against voter fraud.
But Mr. Holder rejected the argument that voter fraud is a serious problem.
"The proof of that is simply not there," he said, adding that North Carolina's law is "an intentional attempt to break a system that was working."
While high-profile voter fraud cases have surfaced in recent years, election officials say there's little evidence of widespread abuse.
For example, out of the 197 million votes cast for federal candidates from 2002 to 2005, only 40 voters were indicted for voter fraud, according to a Justice study cited at a congressional hearing in 2006.
But supporters of voter-ID laws say these measures help to deter voting under false registrations, voting by illegal immigrants and voting by people who are registered in more than one state.
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