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U.S. judge declines to stop North Carolina's election law changes

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge refused on Friday to halt North Carolina's overhauled election law ahead of the midterm vote this November, allowing the provisions, decried by critics as discriminatory, to remain in effect - at least temporarily.

District Judge Thomas Schroeder ruled opponents who sued to block the law had failed to show they were likely to suffer irreparable harm if the sweeping changes stayed in place until a trial set for July 2015.

Lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups argued at a hearing in Winston-Salem last month that a preliminary injunction was needed to protect African Americans and young voters from having their ballot access unreasonably restricted or denied in November.

The state's Republican-led legislature in 2013 shortened North Carolina's 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.

Attorneys for the state said the changes in dispute apply equally to all races. Following the decision, Bob Stephens, chief legal counsel to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, called the law popular.

“Today’s ruling is just more evidence that this law is constitutional – as we have said from the very onset of this process,” Stephens said in a statement.

Last month, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department argued before the judge that lawmakers knew African Americans relied on early voting and mechanisms of registering to vote and casting a ballot that the legislation curtailed.

The groups who challenged the law included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Today is not the end of the fight to stop these discriminatory measures, which make it harder for all North Carolinians to vote," said Chris Brook of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. "We are disappointed in the court's ruling but heartened that the government's efforts to avoid a full trial in this case were rejected."

Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, wrote on his blog that he found it significant the court rejected evidence that the legislature passed its laws out of a racially discriminatory intent.

A provision of the law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls does not take effect until 2016.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles,; Editing by Eric Beech and Jim Loney)