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Federal trial in North Carolina voting rights case underway

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Lawyers and witnesses focused on whether Republican North Carolina state lawmakers and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory illegally weakened minority voting strength as a federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law began Monday.

The trial in Winston-Salem stems from three federal lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department, state NAACP and others over provisions that scaled back early voting and prevented the counting of Election Day ballots cast in an incorrect precinct.

Election law experts say the case could determine how far Southern states can change voting rules after the nation’s highest court struck down a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act just weeks before the North Carolina law was passed.

Here are highlights from the trial’s first day and expected upcoming points of contention:

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OPENING STATEMENTS

Attorneys for the U.S. government and state NAACP said they would prove state lawmakers deliberately suppressed voting rights for minority groups. The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter, has repeatedly likened the elections overhaul trial to a confrontation in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, between voter registration workers and local police who used violence to subdue them.

The plaintiffs believe the trial “will have a lasting and decisive impact on the voting rights of African-Americans and Latinos in North Carolina, and an impact on the Voting Rights Act itself,” said Penda Hair, a lawyer representing the NAACP. “That is why they say about this case: ‘This is our Selma.'”

Tom Farr, a private attorney representing the state, said in court he was taken aback by the Selma connection given the challenged provisions are the law in a majority of the 50 states.

“What is the dastardly thing that North Carolina has done that has been equated to the events in Selma?” Farr asked. He pointed out that black turnout increased in the 2014 election — when some provisions were implemented — compared with four years earlier. “I think it’s hard to say that’s purposeful discrimination.”

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EARLY WITNESSES

Gwendolyn Farrington of Durham testified her vote didn’t count last November when she went to the precinct site closest to her job instead of her home precinct because she didn’t have time to get there before polls closed. The 2013 law prohibited out-of-precinct ballots on Election Day from being counted.

“I was raised that voting was important,” Farrington said. “You cannot get your voice heard unless you exercise your right to vote.”

During a videotaped deposition by another woman whose out-of-precinct ballot didn’t count, Farr suggested the woman had other transportation options to reach the correct precinct, including one from her church.

Barber testified Monday afternoon about efforts to expand voting access in North Carolina and about past racial bias in voting. Earlier, McCrory attorney Butch Bowers said that although everyone acknowledges the deplorable voting discrimination of the past, “the history of North Carolina is not on trial here.”

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OTHER CONFLICTS

The trial also is expected to address whether the rights of black and Latino voters were abridged when lawmakers reduced the number of early voting days before Election Day and the primary from 17 to 10 and eliminated the ability to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day during the early voting period. Another challenged provision eliminated a program allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to “preregister” to vote so they would be automatically registered at 18.

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MAKING A MARK BY MARCHING

After Monday’s testimony, about 3,500 people marched in downtown Winston-Salem past the federal courthouse to protest and call for expanded voting access. The crowd, led by the state NAACP, chanted “This is what democracy looks like,” and held signs that read, “Let the people vote.”

Sharon Debnam, 44, attended the March with teenagers from a Winston-Salem cultural and civic group. Debnam said the group has talked about voting rights recently and the importance of making a difference by casting a ballot as they get older.

“Most young people don’t believe that their vote counts, and it actually does when it’s time for elections,” Debnam said.

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WHAT’S NEXT

The trial is expected to last two to three weeks. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder isn’t expected to rule right away. For now, he has set aside a legal fight over North Carolina’s photo identification requirement to vote in person in 2016 because lawmakers last month eased the mandate. Schroeder’s final ruling likely will be appealed.

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Associated Press writer Emily Masters contributed to this report.

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