By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Ohio's Republican secretary of state has retreated from a bid to keep in place early voting limitations challenged by Democrats while the state appeals a federal court decision that struck down the restrictions.
Jon Husted said on Friday he was directing election officials to restore early, in-person balloting privileges to all voters - not just members of the military - during the last three days before the November 6 general election, as a U.S. district judge has ordered.
Ohio, a pivotal battleground state in the presidential election, allows voting in person to begin on October 2, under balloting reforms enacted in 2005 in response to long lines that plagued polling stations a year earlier.
Republicans pushed through legislation last year to roll back some of the reforms, cutting off early in-person balloting for the last three days before Election Day for everyone but members of the armed forces. Supporters of the new restrictions argued they would help prevent voter fraud and give election officials more time to prepare.
Most of the changes were repealed after early voting backers threatened to put the issue to a referendum. But balloting for the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Election Day was restored only for military members, who tend to vote Republican.
President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party sued to reinstate voting hours for everyone during the three days before November 6, and a federal judge ruled in their favor late last month.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, also a Republican, has appealed the ruling, and Husted last week instructed state election boards to keep the three-day cutoff in place for non-military voters pending that appeal.
Husted said he was trying to avoid confusing voters with new polling hours that might change again if the state's appeal were successful.
But U.S. District Judge Peter Economus ordered Husted to appear for a hearing on Thursday to explain why he was not complying with the court's decision throwing out the Friday-before-Election-Day cutoff.
Husted, in a seven-page court filing on Friday, denied any intention to defy a federal court and said his office "apologizes to the federal district court for creating that misimpression."
According to the Democrats, some 93,000 Ohio voters cast their ballots in the 2008 general election during the last three days before Election Day.
Husted previously ordered the state to set uniform voting hours for all 88 Ohio counties after complaints from Democrats that he was denying extended weekend and after-hours balloting in Democratic-leaning counties.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)