"Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionally exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation," said Holder at a news conference in Washington.
The lawsuit is latest effort by the Obama administration to fight back against a Supreme Court decision that struck down the most powerful part of the landmark Voting Rights Act and freed southern states from strict federal oversight of their elections.
The lawsuit is similar to one filed against Texas last month. It will challenge the law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or language. It seeks to block enforcement of certain provisions of North Carolina's omnibus election bill, House Bill 589.
Four provisions of the NC Voter ID law being challenged in the lawsuit are:
- The adoption of a strict voter photo ID law, without adequate protections for those voters who lack the required ID.
- The elimination of the first seven days of early voting
- The elimination of same-day voter registration during the early voting period
- The prohibition on counting certain provisional ballots (cast by voters in their home county but outside their home voting precinct)
Republican lawmakers insist the new measures are needed to prevent voter fraud, though such crimes are infrequent.
"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. We are confident it protects the right of all voters, as required by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions," said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) in a joint statement following Holder's news conference.
Governor Pat McCrory told reporters Monday that he's extremely disappointed in the decision to challenge the law, calling the lawsuit an "overreach" that's "without merit" and all about politics.
McCrory said when President Obama voted in the last election in Chicago, he was asked to present voter ID and what's good for Illinois is good for North Carolina.
"This lawsuit will only result in costly legal bills for state and federal taxpayers," he said.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper - a Democrat - criticized the law before it was passed. It's not clear if he will defend it in court. Governor McCrory hinted that he and the General Assembly have already lined up private attorneys to take on the case if he won't.
Democrats and civil rights groups argue North Carolina law is 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.
"This is not just about Voter ID. It's about voter suppression," said North Carolina NAACP President William Barber at a news conference Monday - pointing to the many other parts of the law that go beyond requiring identification.
Barber said the NC law "revisits the tactics of Jim Crow in the 21st Century." He pointed out that prior to the law, North Carolina was one of the leading states in the nation for voter participation.
The Department of Justice contends North Carolina's election law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it was enacted with a discriminatory purpose to deny African Americans equal access to voting.
"The state legislature took extremely aggressive steps to curtail the voting rights of African Americans. This is an intentional step to break a system that was working," Holder charged.
But Republicans disagree.
"We should not be suppressing anybody's vote, but I don't believe the law suppresses anybody's right to vote," offered Durham Republican Party Chairman Ted Hicks. "You still have early voting. People can still do absentee voting, and I don't believe an ID is that big of an obstacle."
The Justice Department will ask 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 Justice Department is invoking may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration 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 other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger court review.
Holder said it's worth noting that in a report issued by the State Board of Elections in April, the State compared its voter registration files to its DMV records, and found that over 300,000 voters did not have a DMV-issued ID. African Americans were 34 percent of all of the voters who were on this 'no-match' list, even though African Americans are only about 22 percent of the registered voters in the State.
ABC News and Associated Press reporters Pete Yost and Michael J. Mishak contributed to this report