TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) – In a victory for the Democrats, a federal judge ruled Thursday that Ohio voters who show up at the wrong polling place on Election Day can still cast ballots as long as they are in the county where they are registered.

U.S. District Judge James Carr blocked a directive from Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, who recently announced that poll workers must send voters to their correct precinct.

Blackwell quickly filed an appeal.

The judge said voters who show up at the wrong polling place after moving without notifying the elections board, and those whose names cannot be found on the registration rolls, should be able to cast provisional ballots there.

Denying any voter the right to a provisional vote will erode confidence in the election and lessen the incentive to vote, the judge said.

The decision is a victory for the Ohio Democratic Party and a coalition of labor and voter rights groups, which said Blackwell’s order discriminates against the poor and minorities.

“We expect the secretary of state to issue a new set of guidelines that will allow voters to participate in the election process,” state party Chairman Dennis White said.

The opponents of the directive also argued that a federal law passed in 2002 allows voters to cast provisional ballots at any polling place in their home county.

Blackwell called Carr’s decision a misinterpretation of the federal act.

“The law specifically leaves the issuing and counting of those ballots to states in accordance with state law,” which requires that voters cast ballots at the correct polling place, he said.

Provisional ballots are not counted until after the election. They are set aside and inspected by Democratic and Republican election board employees to establish their validity.

States nationwide have adopted individual standards for when a provisional ballot can be cast and counted. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia require a provisional ballot to be cast in the correct precinct, or it will not count.

More than 100,000 provisional votes were cast in Ohio in the 2000 election – or about 2 percent of the total vote in the presidential election. President Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore in Ohio by 3.6 percentage points.

The legal battle in Ohio was one of several playing out across the country less than three weeks from the election. In other developments related to the challenges:

• In Nevada, the state Democratic Party has sued to extend the state’s voter registration deadline, charging that a Republican-funded group destroyed Democratic registration forms in the presidential battleground state.

• In Colorado, a judge said that the fate of a lawsuit challenging a controversial ballot measure will not be decided at least until next week. The ballot measure would scrap Colorado’s winner-take-all system for awarding its nine Electoral College votes and distribute them proportionally based on the popular vote, starting with the Nov. 2 election.

• In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle asked the state Elections Board to step into a dispute over how many ballots should be available in Milwaukee after the county executive denied a request for more. The mayor has said he is worried about having enough ballots at some polling places, espeically in areas that have been the site of heavy voter registration drives.

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