By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina's decision to reduce early voting days and eliminate same-day registration will cause irreparable harm to African Americans if not halted ahead of the midterm elections in November, a Justice Department lawyer argued on Thursday.
The U.S. judge hearing final arguments in Winston-Salem has not indicated when he will rule on a preliminary injunction sought by the federal government and civil rights groups challenging the sweeping voter law changes passed by the state's Republican-led legislature last year.
Opponents of the law, described as one of the country's toughest for voting regulations, said key provisions should be put on hold until a full trial next year to determine whether they create disproportionate obstacles to voting for minorities, the poor and college students.
Attorneys for North Carolina have argued this week that the overhauled law applies equally to all races and, in its first test during the primary election in May, revealed no discriminatory effects.
The law shortened the 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.
"African Americans came to rely on these mechanisms of voting and the legislature knew that," Justice Department lawyer Bert Russ said.
Lawmakers "took a sledgehammer to the early voting period when no one was asking for these changes," he added.
The state's attorneys are expected to give their closing arguments Thursday afternoon.
A provision of the law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls does not take effect until 2016. Judges in recent months have overturned photo ID laws in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott)