A federal trial that may help shape voting rights protections across the country in the 2016 elections and beyond came to a close here Friday, with the Department of Justice and civil rights groups charging that North Carolina deliberately sought to suppress black voting with a new election law, while the state defended its right to set election rules and said it treated all races equally. “African-Americans were on the verge of having real influence in the state of North Carolina,” Bert Russ, a lawyer with the Justice Department, said of the expanded voting procedures that were curtailed in a Republican-sponsored 2013 law. “The legislature stepped in and took away” the methods that drove this progress, he said, in “a troubling mixture of race and politics.” But a lawyer for the state argued that North Carolina had the right to set its election policies, and that the black voter turnout in 2014, under the new rules, was actually higher than before. The lawyer, Thomas A. Farr, accused the plaintiffs of trying to protect “practices that their political allies prefer.”
Summing up three weeks of testimony, the Justice Department and civil rights groups charged that North Carolina legislators, to gain partisan advantage, trimmed back voting methods like extended early voting and same-day registration that were most heavily used by African-Americans. Blacks in the state overwhelmingly tend to vote Democratic.
The trial may set an important precedent. The Justice Department asked the judge, Thomas D. Schroeder of Federal District Court, who is hearing the case with no jury, not only to block the 2013 law, but also to reinstate strong federal oversight of election practices in North Carolina.