The decision was hailed by civil rights groups who had complained that thousands of minority voters would have been disenfranchised.
In a ruling that ends a highly controversial political issue in the 2012 election, a Pennsylvania judge ordered elections officials not to enact a voter identification requirement that had been harshly criticized by civil rights groups and a host of advocacy organizations.
However, the new voter identification laws can still be enacted next year, the judge ruled.
The decision, by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, follows a ruling by the State Supreme Court, which had pointed questions about the ability — and the need to rush — of the state to issue hundreds of thousands of new documents to voters before the November election. The Supreme Court returned the matter to the lower court.
The voter ID law was passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature with the backing of the state’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett. Civil rights groups complained that the law was designed to make it more difficult for African-American, Latino and elderly voters to obtain the necessary document in time to cast ballots in the Nov. 6 election.
During a hearing in Pennsylvania state court, political science experts testified that 1 million registered voters, or about 12.7 percent of the state’s registered voters, lacked valid identification to cast ballots under the new law. The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Advancement Project have complained that the new law would have effectively disenfranchised a large number of minority voters.
"This is a victory because all voters will be able to vote in 2012, whether they have ID or not," said Benjamin Jealous, president of he NAACP, in an interview with BET.com. "We will focus on 2013 in 2013." The civil rights organization was deeply immersed in seeking to block the new law.
“We are very glad voters will not be turned away from the polls this November if they do not have an ID,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, one of the groups that challenged the law. “The evidence made it clear to the judge that this law would indeed disenfranchise voters and that the Commonwealth was not equipped to implement it fairly right now.”
Penda D. Hair, co-director of Advancement Project, said, “This injunction serves as a mere Band-Aid for the law’s inherent problems, not an effective remedy.”
The ruling came after the judge heard two days of testimony about the state's effort to provide identification documents to all who needed them. He heard testimony about long lines and ill-informed clerks at driver's license centers and identification requirements that made it hard for some registered voters to get a state-issued photo ID.
Civil rights groups have insisted that the purpose of the new law was to enhance the chances of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney of winning the state in the race against President Obama.
To underscore that point, civil rights and advocacy groups have pointed to a statement by Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai that highlighted the partisan nature of the changes. Speaking to a gathering of Pennsylvania's Republican State Committee, Turzai listed the accomplishments of the Republican-controlled legislature in Pennsylvania, saying the voter laws would help defeat President Obama.
"Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it's done," Turzai said. "First pro-life legislation — abortion facility regulations — in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)