By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - A judge in the election battleground state of Pennsylvania on Wednesday rejected an effort to block the state's voter identification law, which civil rights groups argued discriminates against minority voters.
Pennsylvania, a major electoral prize in the November 6 presidential election between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, is one of 11 states to pass laws since 2010 requiring voters to show some form of legal identification. The laws have become a contentious issue before the November 6 elections.
Both parties see turnout as key in battleground states like Pennsylvania, and Democrats fear voter ID laws disproportionately curtail balloting by lower-income and minority voters, who typically favor their party.
Civil and voting rights groups, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, had sought a preliminary injunction to block the law, arguing it erects unfair hurdles for many legitimate Pennsylvania voters who lack an acceptable form of identification.
Supporters, including the Republican-dominated legislature and Republican Governor Tom Corbett, argued the law is necessary to prevent fraud and to keep non-citizens from voting.
"Petitioner's counsel did an excellent job of 'putting a face' to those burdened by the voter ID requirement," Pennsylvania Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson said in a 70-page ruling.
"At the end of the day, however, I do not have the luxury of deciding this issue based on my sympathy for the witnesses or my esteem for counsel," Simpson wrote.
He found that the civil rights groups failed to show that the law was unconstitutional under all circumstances since it applies to all qualified voters, requiring them to present a photo ID that can be obtained for free. Judges would also be stationed at polling places on Election Day to resolve individual disputes, he added.
Before the trial, Pennsylvania conceded that it was not aware of any instances of voter impersonation fraud in the state.
While Simpson acknowledged that political interests may have motivated the legislators who voted for the law, that did not make the law unconstitutional, he said.
Simpson left open the possibility that specific individuals could try again to block the law by showing that they were prevented from voting.
The Advancement Project, one of the groups behind the suit, said it would appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The decision forces people to suffer the harm of not being able to vote in the election and then sue afterward, said the Advancement Project's co-director, Penda Hair.
"I just can't believe it," Viviette Applewhite, the 93-year-old lead plaintiff, said in a statement. "Too many people have fought for the right to vote to have it taken away like this," said Applewhite, an African American who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
The chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, Rob Gleason, applauded the court's decision.
"Voter disenfranchisement is only a risk if we don't turn our attention and efforts toward helping every voter in Pennsylvania comply with this new law," he said in a statement.
The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing whether the Pennsylvania voter ID law complies with federal voting rights laws, a department official said on Wednesday. The department said in July it would analyze Pennsylvania data to determine if voters who lack proper ID under the new law are disproportionately black or Hispanic.
Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington who testified in the case for the ACLU, found that around 14 percent of voters in Pennsylvania do not possess the necessary ID. Latinos, people without a high school degree and the elderly are all significantly less likely to possess a valid ID, he found in a survey conducted for the ACLU.
While the law will deny people the right to vote, it is not likely to make a difference in the outcome of the presidential election in Pennsylvania, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
According to a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll released August 1, Obama leads Romney 53 percent to 42 percent in Pennsylvania.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Vicki Allen and Doina Chiacu)