One of the toughest of a new wave of US state laws in a debate over voting rights was put on hold on Tuesday, as a judge postponed Pennsylvania’s voter identification requirements just weeks before the presidential election. Democrats cheered the decision.
The six-month-old law in one of the most prized states in next month’s election has become a high-profile issue in the tight contest between US President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Independent polls show a persistent lead for Obama in the state, but pollsters have said the requirement for voters to show a valid ID could mean that fewer people, especially the poor and minorities, end up voting. In the past, lower turnouts in Pennsylvania have benefited Republicans.
A top state lawmaker boasted to a Republican dinner in June that the ID requirement “is going to allow ... Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Publicly, Republicans have justified the law as a protection against potential election fraud.
The law had faced protests, warnings of election day chaos and voter education drives as the law’s opponents — including minorities, older people and labor unions — began collecting stories of people who had no valid photo ID and faced stiff barriers in their efforts to get one.
The judge’s decision on Tuesday could be appealed to the state Supreme Court, but it could easily be the final word on the law before the Nov. 6 election. The ruling also allows the law to go into full effect next year.
Democrats have used opposition to the law as a rallying cry to motivate volunteers and campaign contributions. They accused Republicans of trying to steal the White House from Obama by making it harder for young adults, the poor, minorities and the disabled to vote.
In a statement, the Obama campaign said the decision means that “eligible voters can vote on Election Day, just like they have in previous elections in the state.”
The plaintiffs — a group of registered voters, 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.
The constitutionality of the law, however, was not a question before the judge, who was under orders from a higher court to postpone the law if he thought anyone eligible would be unable to cast a ballot because of it.
Election workers are still to be allowed to ask voters for a valid photo ID, but people without it can vote on a regular voting machine and will not have to cast a provisional ballot or prove their identity to election officials after the election.