By Ken Otterbourg
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Monday began hearing a challenge to North Carolina's election laws that claims voting restrictions enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature discriminate against black and Latino voters, who tend to favor Democrats.
Voting rights groups, backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, have said that changes to state election laws pushed through in 2013 by the Republican-led legislature were unlawful. The state has said the changes treat all voters equally and were designed to prevent election fraud.
The changes followed a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that eliminated a provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring North Carolina and other states with histories of discrimination to obtain federal approval for voting rule changes affecting minorities.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has said the outcome of the North Carolina case will affect voting rights across the United States.
Court challenges have also been mounted in Texas and Florida over similar Republican-led voting restrictions.
William Barber, president of North Carolina's chapter of the NAACP, testified on Monday that the changes rolled back hard-won gains that had made it easier for more citizens to vote.
He said Republicans had little interest in hearing dissenting views when the measure was debated.
"There was resistance by the new extremists who had taken over the legislature to meet with us," Barber said.
The changes in North Carolina's election law reduced an early voting period, eliminated pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds, and barred same-day registration and provisional voting for people casting ballots outside their home precincts.
The case is being brought by the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The trial is expected to last several weeks. While early evidence focused on anecdotal instances of voters who were turned away at polls, later testimony is expected to turn more analytical, with each side looking at voter turnout from 2014 to underscore its case.
The NAACP has pointed out that African Americans comprise 22 percent of North Carolina voters but made up 41 percent of voters who used same-day registration. They also cast out-of-precinct ballots at twice the rate of white voters.
After court adjourned on Monday, several thousand people attended a voting rights rally at a park a few blocks away. Speakers at the rally urged them to work hard to expand opportunity for all citizens.
"This is our Selma," the NAACP said in an Internet posting announcing Monday's march, referring to an infamous attack on civil rights marchers in Alabama in March 1965, five months before the Voting Rights Act became law.
Attorneys for the defendants rejected that idea.
"We've heard that this is another Selma," said Thomas Farr, an attorney representing the state. "What's the dastardly thing that North Carolina has done? What they did was they enacted regulations that represent majority rule throughout the United States."
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Michael Perry, Bernadette Baum, Toni Reinhold)