Groups suing the state over voting changes were hoping for a summer 2014 trial date, so the issues could be resolved before the midterm elections.
But they won’t get to argue their case against the new law until July 2015. A U.S. District Court magistrate judge on Thursday set the later trial date after attorneys for the state said they need more time to conduct depositions and gather data than a trial next summer would allow.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit in September against the state, alleging the voting law passed by the General Assembly this year discriminates against minorities, who tend to favor Democrats.
Two other similar suits also were filed locally by groups of individuals, churches and advocacy organizations. Among the plaintiffs in the suits are the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.
The Voter Identification Verification Act, signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory in August, requires voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls, shortens the early voting period from 17 to 10 days and does away with the counting of provisional ballots cast by those who voted in the wrong districts.
Those provisions along with others in the bill, the Justice Department argues, will have a disproportionate effect on black voters.
In arguing for an earlier trial date, Daniel Donovan, attorney for the NAACP, said extensive studies have been done on the impact the voting changes will have on minority communities, and that sufficient data is available to proceed to trial. He also said depositions shouldn’t take very long.
Alexander Peters, a senior deputy attorney general for the state, maintained it would be unrealistic to complete discovery by April, which would be the deadline if a trial were to proceed next summer.
Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake said in her ruling a trial next year might not provide enough time to finish discovery, the process of collecting and sharing information in a case.
She did leave open the possibility that a preliminary injunction would be filed, which would put the voting changes on hold.
She also consolidated the three suits for purposes of discovery and scheduling.
The ID requirement is not scheduled to go into effect until 2016, though some other provisions including the early voting changes are set to begin next year.
The hearing drew a crowd that packed the courtroom on the second floor of the federal building. Some people waited close to half-an-hour to get through security.
During a break, the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and a group of supporters gathered in the middle of the courtroom to pray.
After the hearing, he said in a conference call the case needs to be expedited and that he intends to fight for an injunction.
“Once you take away a voting right, it’s like a sunrise, you can’t get it again,” he said. “It’s like a breath, you don’t get that breath again.”