HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania's divisive voter identification requirement became the latest of its kind to get pushback from the courts ahead of Election Day, delivering a hard-fought victory to Democrats who said it was a ploy to defeat President Barack Obama and other opponents who said it would prevent the elderly and minorities from voting.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said in his ruling that he was concerned by the state's stumbling efforts to create a photo ID that is easily accessible to voters and that he could not rely on the assurances of government officials at this late date that every voter would be able to get a valid ID.
If it stands, it is good news for Obama's chances in Pennsylvania, one of the nation's biggest electoral college prizes, unless Republicans and the tea party groups that backed the law find a way to use it to motivate their supporters and possibly independents.
Joseph Strickland prepares voter identification for former mayor of Pittsburgh, Sophie Masloff, 94, of Squirrel Hill, Monday, evening at the CCAC Homewood-Brushton Center. One of the toughest of a new wave of U.S. state laws in a debate over voting rights was put on hold Tuesday as a judge postponed Pennsylvania's controversial voter identification requirement just weeks before the presidential election. The law requires each voter to show a valid photo ID.
Simpson based his decision on guidelines given to him two weeks ago by the state's high court to determine whether the state had made photo IDs easily accessible to voters who needed them. It could easily be the final word on the law just five weeks before the Nov. 6 election, especially since Gov. Tom Corbett, who had championed the law, said he was leaning against appealing to the state Supreme Court.
"This decision is a big win for voters in Pennsylvania," said Witold J. Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which helped challenge the law.
Simpson's ruling would not stop the law from going into full effect next year, though he could still decide later to issue a permanent injunction as part of the ongoing legal challenge to the law's constitutionality.
The 6-month-old law - among the nation's toughest - is one of many that has passed a Republican-controlled state Legislature since the last presidential election, and has sparked a divisive debate over voting rights ahead of the contest between Obama, a Democrat, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, for Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes.
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 law is one of about 20 tougher voter identification laws passed predominantly by Republican-controlled state Legislatures since the last presidential election. However, several states' laws are not strict in their requirement for a photo ID, several others were vetoed by Democratic governors and still others - such as in Texas and Wisconsin - were held up by courts.
It's not clear how the laws could affect the presidential election, or even if they will, considering that the toughest identification laws are not taking effect this year in presidential battleground states.