HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's highest court on Tuesday told a lower court that it should stop a tough new voter photo identification law from taking effect in this year's presidential election if the judge concludes voters cannot easily get ID cards or thinks they will be disenfranchised.
The 4-2 decision by the state Supreme Court sends the case back to the lower Commonwealth Court, where a judge initially ruled in August that the divisive law could go forward. The high court asked for an opinion by Oct. 2 - just 35 days before the election.
If the judge finds there will be no voter disenfranchisement and that IDs are easily obtained, then the 6-month-old law can stand, the Supreme Court said.
But the Supreme Court's directions to the lower court set a much tougher standard than the one Judge Robert Simpson used when he rejected the plaintiffs' request to halt the law, said David Gersch, the challengers' lead lawyer.
"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," Gersch said. "In addition, there is a practical problem with getting the ID to people in the short time available."
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees voting and elections, said the agency will provide whatever information a judge may seek.
"We believe, as we have all along, that any legal voter who wants to get an ID is able to do so," spokesman Ron Ruman said.
A Commonwealth Court official said Tuesday afternoon that no judge had been assigned yet to the task.
The court's three sitting Republican justices were joined in the majority by one of the court's Democrats, Max Baer. The court's two other Democrats dissented, saying enough evidence of voter disenfranchisement already exists to stop the law now.
The problem, the four majority justices noted, is that the state has had to scramble to solve impediments to distributing a secure, nondriver photo ID card promised under the law to any registered voter who needs one.
The justices noted that the state is unable to comply with that crucial provision because those cards are subject to federal rules requiring applicants to provide supplemental identification, such as an official record of birth. Some registered voters might not be able to produce that sort of identification.
In an effort to address that problem, the state began issuing new, voting-only ID cards in late August, after Simpson's initial ruling, that aren't subject to the stringent federal rules.
"Thus, we will return the matter to the Commonwealth Court to make a present assessment of the actual availability of the alternate identification cards on a developed record in light of the experience since the time the cards became available," the justices wrote.
Plaintiffs' lawyers, however, said registered voters are still having trouble getting the new voting-only cards. In some cases, state employees at driver license centers are having trouble verifying voter registration records, they said.
The Republican-penned ID 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, said 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.