The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered a lower court on Tuesday to reconsider its decision upholding a new state voter ID law, saying it should be blocked if voters would be shut out this Election Day by hurdles to obtaining ID cards.
The court battle over the law passed last March by the Republican-led legislature in Pennsylvania, considered a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election, is being watched closely on both local and national levels.
The Supreme Court's ruling sends the issue back to Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who must reconsider his earlier decision to allow the law to go forward. He is due to rule by Oct 2.
Supporters of the voter ID law say it is aimed at ensuring that only those legally eligible to vote cast ballots. Critics say it is designed to keep minority voters, who typically vote Democratic, away from the polls.
The law mandates that all voters show either a state driver's license, government employee ID or a state non-driver ID card to vote, including in the November 6 presidential election. Similar legal battles are under way in Texas and South Carolina.
The high court said the race to supply identification to voters in the seven weeks before Election Day has hit a number of snags and threatens to trample citizens' constitutional right to vote.
"We are confronted with an ambitious effort on the part of the General Assembly to bring the new identification procedure into effect within a relatively short timeframe and an implementation process which has by no means been seamless in light of the serious operational constraints faced by the executive branch," the ruling said.
While finding that government officials are "proceeding in good faith," the judges ordered the lower court to reassess the process now underway for obtaining ID cards and to look for unexpected roadblocks that threaten "liberal access" to voter IDs mandated by the law.
If the lower court finds access is inhibited or that voters are being disenfranchised in any other way "arising out of the Commonwealth's implementation of a voter-identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election, that court is obliged to enter a preliminary injunction," the Supreme Court said.
The high court's 4-2 opinion places a "very, very high burden on the Commonwealth to establish that no one is going to be disenfranchised by this law," said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
"It is going to be very difficult for the state to make this showing," she said.
Pennsylvania's Department of State, which has argued there is no evidence that the necessary ID cards could not be produced in time, said it would continue to reach out to voters with mailers, television advertisements and calls to educate them on the law.
A spokesman said the department was confident "every registered voter in Pennsylvania who needs an ID for voting will be able to get one for the November election."
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Philip Barbara)