"By restricting access and ease of voter participation, this new law would shrink, rather than expand, access" to voting, Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference. "Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation."
The lawsuit is the latest effort by the Obama administration to counter a Supreme Court decision that struck down the most powerful part of the landmark Voting Rights Act and freed states, many of them in the South, from strict federal oversight of their elections.
Within days of the Supreme Court ruling, North Carolina's legislature "took aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African Americans," Holder told reporters, calling it "an intentional attempt to break a system that was working."
He said that in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, African-American voters dramatically increased their participation rates across North Carolina, and more than 70 percent of African Americans who voted in those elections cast ballots during the early voting period before Election Day.
North Carolina's new law scales back the period for early voting by seven days and includes a stringent photo ID requirement for voters.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis issued a statement that rejected Holder's argument. "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.
"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," the two lawmakers said. "We are confident it protects the right of all voters, as required by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions."
North Carolina is among at least five Southern states adopting stricter voter ID and other election laws. The Justice Department on Aug. 22 sued Texas over the state's voter ID law and is seeking to intervene in a lawsuit over redistricting laws in Texas that minority groups consider to be discriminatory.
Republican lawmakers in southern states insist the new measures are needed to prevent voter fraud, though such crimes are infrequent. Democrats and civil rights groups argue the tough new laws are intended to make voting more difficult for minorities and students, voting groups that lean toward Democrats, in states with legacies of poll taxes and literacy tests.
The North Carolina lawsuit challenges the state law's elimination of the first seven days of early voting opportunities and its elimination of same-day voter registration during the early voting period. Same-day registration allows voters to cast a ballot immediately after presenting election officials with proof of their name and home address.
The Justice Department challenge also is aimed at a provision eliminating the counting of certain types of provisional ballots by voters who cast ballots in their home counties but do not vote in the correct precincts.
Finally, the federal government is challenging a provision in the new law that requires voters to present government-issued identification at the polls in order to cast ballots. In North Carolina, a recent state board of elections survey found that hundreds of thousands of registered voters did not have a state-issued ID. Many of those voters are young, black, poor or elderly.
In remarks Sept. 20 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Holder said his department would not allow the Supreme Court's action to be interpreted as "open season" for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.
The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to place the four provisions in North Carolina's new law under federal scrutiny for an indeterminate period - a process known as pre-clearance. However, the provision of the Voting Rights Act that the department is relying on may be a difficult tool to use.
A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to pre-clearance, or advance approval, of election changes through the Civil Rights Act provision it is relying on, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the Constitution's 14th or 15th amendments, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike in other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger court review.
Nowhere is the debate over voting rights is more heated than in Florida, where the chaotic recount in the disputed 2000 presidential race took place.
Florida election officials are set to resume an effort to remove noncitizens from the state's voting rolls. A purge last year ended in embarrassment after hundreds of American citizens, most of whom were black or Hispanic, were asked to prove their citizenship or risk losing their right to vote.