By Nathan Layne
(Reuters) -A Pennsylvania court sided with Republican lawmakers in striking down a law on Friday that eliminated barriers to voting by mail, raising doubts over ballot access in the battleground state ahead of important election contests this year.
The administration of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf indicated it would immediately appeal the ruling. That could put the decision on hold while it is under consideration at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Three Republican judges agreed with Republicans who had challenged the law, Act 77, saying the state's constitution required people to vote in person unless they had a specific excuse, such as having a disability or being away from home on Election Day. Two Democratic judges dissented.
Implemented in 2019 with Republican support, Act 77 had eliminated such requirements for mail-in ballots. Democrats actively used the method of voting in 2020, helping President Joe Biden win the state over Donald Trump by some 80,000 votes.
Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said that while she believed Pennsylvanians would support eliminating the in-person voting requirement, a constitutional amendment, rather than legislation, was the appropriate first step.
"An amendment to our Constitution that ends the requirement of in-person voting is the necessary prerequisite to the legislature's establishment of a no-excuse mail-in voting system," Leavitt wrote in the ruling.
The ruling comes ahead of important races in Pennsylvania, including the one for retiring Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a contest that could help determine control of Congress in November's midterm elections.
"This opinion is based on twisted logic and faulty reasoning, and is wrong on the law," Josh Shapiro, the state's Democratic attorney general who is running for governor, said in a statement flagging an appeal to the state supreme court.
"It will be immediately appealed and therefore won't have any immediate impact on Pennsylvania's upcoming elections."
Act 77 was passed in 2019 as the result of a compromise between Republican and Democratic state lawmakers. Republicans were seeking to end straight-ticket voting, which had allowed voters to select one political party's slate of candidates, and Democrats wanted to open up voting-by-mail to everyone.
Republicans changed their views on the law after Trump lost the state, with many of them embracing the former president's false claims that widespread fraud tied to mail-in ballots was behind his defeat.
The COVID-19 pandemic also made mail-in voting more attractive to voters worried about health risks. More than 2.6 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail in the 2020 General Election. Roughly three-quarters of the ballots cast by mail selected Biden.
(reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Richard Chang and David Gregorio)