WASHINGTON -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court cast doubt Tuesday on whether the state can enforce its new photo ID law for the November election, telling a trial judge to take a skeptical look at whether registered voters could be turned away at the polls.
The judge must see to it that "there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the voter ID requirement," the state justices said. "The right to vote in Pennsylvania, as vested in eligible, qualified voters, is a fundamental one."
The court's 4-2 decision is a tentative but not final victory for voting-rights advocates. The advocates have said the new requirement, if strictly enforced, will deprive tens of thousands of voters from casting ballots.
Although the vast majority of Pennsylvanians have driver's licenses that would allow them to vote, 9 percent of its registered voters -- about 758,000 people -- do not drive and may be turned away at the polls, the state reported during the summer.
The two dissenting justices said they would have gone further Tuesday and blocked the law for this year.
At issue in the case is not whether a state may require voters to verify their identities, but whether it may adopt a stringent new voting standard in an election year.
The Pennsylvania Legislature, controlled by Republicans, adopted the photo ID requirement this year and said that only a current, government-issued photo ID with an expiration date would satisfy the
State House Republican leader Mike Turzai said in June that the law would allow Mitt Romney to win the state.
In response to complaints about the law, the state said it would issue a new photo ID of its own and would make sure eligible voters were not barred from the polls. But, as the Supreme Court noted, the state said voters who do not drive must go to Department of Transportation offices and bring with them birth certificates, Social Security cards and two other forms of identification.
Last month, a state trial judge in Harrisburg refused to block the law and ruled that in theory every eligible voter should be able to obtain the proper identification. That judget, Robert Simpson, was elected as a Republican.
Since the state Supreme Court court is evenly split with three Republicans and three Democrats, state officials had expected the law to take full effect this fall.
But in Tuesday's decision, the justices said they were not persuaded by the "assurances of government officials." They told Simpson to hold another hearing on whether legal voters in Pennsylvania would be barred from voting if the new law takes effect.