By Mark Shade
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A judge on Tuesday blocked Pennsylvania from requiring voters to show photo identification in November's U.S. election, a decision that could influence turnout in a top electoral prize in the presidential race.
In a setback for Republican state officials who championed the controversial law and had hoped it would help them deliver Pennsylvania for their party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson delayed its implementation until after Election Day, November 6.
Simpson, however, did signal the law, which requires people seeking to vote to show either a state driver's license, government employee ID or a state non-driver ID card, could be implemented for future elections. The judge, ordered by the state's highest court to revisit his earlier ruling upholding the law, set a hearing for December 13 to further discuss the case.
The ruling comes exactly five weeks before the presidential election pitting challenger Romney against President Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee whom polls show has a sizable lead in the state. The closely watched case is also one of several challenges to recent laws around the country requiring voters to show proof of who they are and their eligibility to vote.
Also on Tuesday, Mississippi's attorney general said the state's voter identification law will not be in effect for the November election while the federal government reviews whether it is discriminatory.
Mississippi approved a voter ID ballot initiative by a wide margin last November. But the U.S. Department of Justice had requested information from the state to determine whether the new law would violate the Voting Rights Act.
In the Pennsylvania case, Simpson, who heard frustrated voters testify about the slow, mistake-prone process of obtaining the cards, said he had expected a greater number of identification cards to have been issued by now.
"For this reason, I accept (the) argument that in the remaining five weeks before the general election, the gap between the photo IDs issued and the estimated need will not be closed," the judge said in an 18-page ruling.
"This is a victory for the petitioners and people who will be able to vote on Election Day," said Marian Schneider, one of the attorneys for the voting rights and civil rights groups challenging the law.
Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican who helped push the law through the Pennsylvania legislature this spring without a single Democratic vote, said he was pleased the law was upheld for future elections.
At a fundraiser in June, Turzai had touted it as a key achievement that would help the Romney camp this November, saying: "Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania - done."
Governor Tom Corbett, also a Republican and backer of the law, said he had no plans to appeal the decision handed down on Tuesday.
NO VOTER FRAUD SHOWN
Corbett and other supporters say the law is aimed at ensuring 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 state of Pennsylvania has acknowledged it has never seen a case of in-person voter fraud, according to court testimony.
The high court had instructed Simpson to determine whether the Corbett administration was doing enough to ensure voters had "liberal access" to the picture ID cards needed to vote in November.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, League of Women Voters, Latino Justice, and SeniorLAW Center have argued the requirements make it impractical or nearly impossible for senior citizens, minorities and the poor to get the IDs.
On Tuesday, a three-hour wait at a voter ID issuing center in Philadelphia was endured by a crowd of 200 people, mostly African-American.
"I believe in voting. It's my right," said Geneva Workman, 76, a retired housekeeper who decided to stay in line despite the ruling that would allow her vote without an ID in November.
Lois Sallard, 48, an unemployed family shelter worker waiting to renew her expired ID, said she was determined to vote in this election. "I want the best man in office to help with this country, to make this world a better place."
Simpson's ruling followed testimony from a dozen people who recalled the hurdles they had to overcome to get IDs, including long waits, multiple trips and misinformation. One of the witnesses, who included a person who walked with a cane and another in a wheelchair who called her experience maddening, saying she nearly gave up after several days' quest for the card.
OTHER CHALLENGES UNDERWAY
Pennsylvania is one of the top prizes in the election, bringing the winner 20 votes in the Electoral College, tying it with Illinois for fifth in the ranks of electors by state. Only California, Texas, New York and Florida bring more.
To win the White House, Obama or Romney must capture at least 270 of the Electoral College's 538 available votes. A CNN poll released last week showed Obama with a 9 percentage point margin over Romney among likely voters in the state, leading 49 percent to 40 percent.
A raft of recently enacted voter ID laws are being challenged, and several have suffered setbacks in court this year.
Earlier this year, two judges in Wisconsin found that state's voter ID law violated the state's constitution, and last week the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied a fast-track appeal. Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen conceded the law was unlikely to go into effect before the election.
In August, a federal three-judge panel blocked a Texas law requiring voters to show identification. The U.S. Department of Justice had opposed the law, arguing it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlaws voting procedures that discriminate against minorities.
The Department of Justice is also contesting South Carolina's voter ID law in federal court. Last week, a lawyer for South Carolina argued the law would not have a discriminatory effect and urged a panel of judges to let the law go into effect. But he did not insist a ruling come in time for the November 6 election.
(Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia and Edith Honan in New York; Writing by Barbara Goldberg and Dan Burns; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Eric Walsh)