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U.S. senator seeks federal review of North Carolina voting law

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) answers phone calls from constituents in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington July 29, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) answers phone calls from constituents in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington July 29, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Karen Brooks

(Reuters) - U.S. Senator Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat expected to face a tough battle to retain her seat in 2014, on Tuesday asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review a restrictive new state voting law championed by Republicans that she said will undermine the right to vote in her state.

In a letter to Holder, Hagan said she was "deeply concerned" that the new law, which includes a requirement that voters bring photo identification to the polls, will deny voting rights to minorities, young people, the elderly and the poor.

"Protecting the fundamental right of our citizens to vote should be among the federal government's highest priorities," Hagan wrote.

On Monday, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed into law sweeping new election reforms, making his the first state to enact new restrictions since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of a Civil Rights-era law designed to protect minority voters.

Opponents argue that because the affected voters tend to vote Democratic, the law was designed to bolster Republican success at the polls.

But supporters say it eliminates voter fraud and standardizes elections across the state.

The law also includes measures that reduce time allowed for early voting, eliminate voter registration on election day, ban student IDs from being used at the polls and shut down a program that pre-registered 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.

It will not go into effect until 2016, which means it will not affect Hagan's race, the outcome of which 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 term.

Holder has threatened federal government action against states that seek to curb voting access in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The section required states in the U.S. South with a history of racial discrimination, including North Carolina, to meet certain tests of fairness in voting.

Late on Monday, the NAACP, the civil rights organization, brought a lawsuit challenging the law.

The challenge is on behalf of a 92-year-old woman who was one of the first African Americans to vote in North Carolina, said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that partnered with the North Carolina NAACP to file the suit.

Due to an issue with the photo ID, the woman, Rosanell Eaton, may not be able to vote under the new law after seven decades of voting legally, Hair said.

More than 70 percent of African Americans who voted in the last North Carolina election did so through early voting, and African Americans are more likely to use same-day registration than are white voters, she said.

"Lawmakers have failed to offer any credible, non-discriminatory reason for eliminating these popular programs, which had made voting more accessible for thousands of voters," she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice have also sued.

State Representative Harry Warren, one of the bill's Republican sponsors, dismissed the accusations of racism, saying they were a political tactic and would fail.

"The intent is to discredit the Republican party by painting this picture of it being an egregious piece of legislation designed to hurt minorities and other people," he said. "And that's not the case."

The law passed the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly in late July, two years after Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in more than a century.

Ten states have already enacted laws that require photo identification to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and North Carolina is among a dozen states that have considered or adopted new laws this year.

(Reporting by Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas, and Marti Maguire in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Greg McCune and Steve Orlofsky)

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