(Reuters) - An Iowa judge issued a temporary injunction on Friday blocking the state's plans to verify the citizenship status of voters before the November 6 election in the Midwestern swing state.
The injunction was a setback for Iowa's Republican Governor Terry Branstad, whose government had hoped to check on the citizenship of more than 3,500 people to purge state voter rolls of potential illegal immigrants.
Iowa District Court Judge Mary Pat Grunderson said the effort to verify the legal status of voters could not proceed while a lawsuit against the potential voter purge goes forward.
"The court concludes the harm that granting the temporary injunction may prevent outweighs the harm that may result from denying it," the judge wrote in her 12-page ruling.
She stressed that the ruling was only provisional and did not directly address the merits of the state's concern about voter eligibility.
But she said the pursuit of new voter verification efforts, under emergency rulemaking powers adopted by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, had "created confusion and mistrust in the voter registration process" in immigrant communities in Iowa.
"They have created fear that new citizens will lose their right to vote and/or be charged with a felony, and caused some qualified voters to feel deterred even from registering to vote," Grunderson said in her opinion.
Schultz, the state's top election official, decried Grunderson's ruling. "Unfortunately this ruling could (open) the door for non-citizens to continue voting in Iowa elections," he said in a statement.
"Although I am very disappointed in this ruling, this is just one of many steps in the process and I am resolved to continuing to fight for the people of Iowa and protecting the integrity of our elections."
The legal complaint against Iowa's voter verification effort was filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa.
"We're very pleased," said Randall Wilson, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa, when asked about the temporary injunction.
"The Iowa public was getting the bum's rush," Wilson added.
"The law requires a real emergency before emergency laws can be promulgated," he added.
(Reporting by Tom Brown and David Adams; editing by Todd Eastham)