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Court ruling a victory for Democrats in Ohio early voting case

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - An appeals court on Friday upheld a lower court ruling that reinstated early, in-person voting in the three days before the November 6 election in the key swing state of Ohio, handing a victory to President Barack Obama's campaign.

Ohio, which is seen as critical to Republican challenger Mitt Romney's bid to win the White House, had allowed voting in person to begin this past Tuesday but planned to cut it off on the Friday before Election Day, except for members of the military.

The state said it was a burden to election boards.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the state's arguments for its decision insufficient, saying that there was "no evidence that local boards of elections have struggled to cope with early voting in the past," or will struggle this November.

The court's decision does not require polls to be open on those days, but leaves it up to the discretion of the state's 88 individual county election boards. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, said in a statement that his office was reviewing the ruling and would decide how to proceed.

Early voting was enacted in Ohio in 2005 after long lines plagued the 2004 presidential election, and Republicans passed legislation last year limiting the practice. Most of the changes were overturned after opponents threatened to put them to a referendum, but voting on the three days before the election was not restored.

The August 31 ruling by U.S. District Judge Peter Economus was in response to a lawsuit filed in July by the Obama re-election campaign and the Ohio Democratic National Party that argued the law was unconstitutional because it imposed two different voting deadlines for military and non-military voters.

Democrats contended that about 93,000 Ohio voters used that time period for voting in the 2008 election year.

Ohio is one of a handful of states that could determine the outcome of the race between Obama and Romney. Polls have Obama leading in the state, though Romney appears to have narrowed the gap after the candidates' first televised debate on Wednesday.

Democrats say early voting restrictions and stricter voter ID laws are designed to limit Democratic turnout, while Republicans argue the measures are necessary to reduce fraud at the ballot box.

Early voting and extended voting hours are thought to benefit Democrats, because lower-income people, who tend to vote Democratic, also are more likely to work odd hours.

(Reporting By Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Greg McCune and Paul Simao)

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