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North Carolina ordered to release documents in voter law challenge

By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina legislators who shaped sweeping voting changes, including requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, must provide some emails and other documents to groups challenging the law, a federal judge has ruled.

Lawmakers are immune from being sued individually for their legislative acts but cannot withhold all communications related to the law's passage, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled on Thursday.

Peake said claims of immunity "must be evaluated under a flexible approach" that considered the need for information in the lawsuit while still protecting the legislative process.

A lawyer for the state had argued at a hearing in February in Winston-Salem that legislators could not be compelled to explain their votes or release any correspondence about their decision-making.

Attorneys for the law's challengers, who say it will restrict voting rights and discriminate against minorities, said the public had a right to know more about the circumstances under which it was passed.

The law's opponents said Peake's ruling should help their case, which will not go to trial until after the 2014 mid-term elections.

"North Carolinians have a right to know what motivated their lawmakers to make it harder for them to vote," said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Republican Governor Pat McCrory's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

McCrory signed North Carolina's voting changes into law in August, prompting lawsuits by parties including the U.S. Justice Department, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Republican lawmakers said the changes were needed to combat voter fraud. Critics argue that reducing early voting days, eliminating same-day registration and imposing a photo-identification requirement for in-person voting make it harder for those who are likely to vote for Democratic candidates to cast their ballots.

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrea Ricci)

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