Pennsylvania's highest court on Tuesday told a lower court judge to stop a tough new law requiring voters to show photo identification from taking effect in this year's presidential election if he finds voters cannot get easy access to ID cards or if he thinks voters will be disenfranchised.
The 4-2 decision by the state Supreme Court sends the case back to a Commonwealth Court judge who initially rejected a request to stop the divisive law from going forward. The high court asked the judge, Robert Simpson, for his opinion by Oct. 2.
If Simpson finds there will be no voter disenfranchisement and that IDs are easily obtained, then the law can stand, the Supreme Court said.
"It's certainly a very positive step in the right direction in that the court recognizes that the state does not make adequate provision for people to get the ID that they would need to vote," said David Gersch, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs challenging the law's constitutionality. "In addition, there is a practical problem with getting the ID to people in the short time available."
The Republican-penned law passed over the objections of Democrats and ignited a furious debate over voting rights, making it a high-profile issue in the contest for the state's prized 20 electoral votes between President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
Republicans, long suspicious of ballot-box stuffing in the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, say the law would deter election fraud. But Democrats pointed to a blank trail of evidence of such fraud, and charged that Republicans are trying to steal the White House by making it harder for the elderly, disabled, minorities, the poor and college students to vote.
The law — among the nation's toughest — has inspired protests, warnings of Election Day chaos and voter education drives. It was already a political lightning rod when a top state Republican lawmaker boasted to a GOP dinner in June that the ID requirement "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
The plaintiffs — eight registered Democrats, plus the Homeless Advocacy Project, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — had sought to block the law from taking effect in this year's election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.
Some of the people who sued over the law had raised the claim that they might be unable to vote because they lacked the necessary documents, such as an official birth record, to get the law's ID card of last resort: A state nondriver photo ID that is subject to federal requirements because it can be used for non-voting purposes, such as boarding an airplane.