COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – A federal appeals court Friday blocked the Republicans from contesting more than 20,000 voter registrations in Ohio before Election Day.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati turned down several GOP appeals of a lower court judge’s order that stopped hearings on the contested registrations.

The action could mean the hearings might never take place, since they must be held within two days of the election, the Republicans said. The lower court judge was considering whether to make her temporary order permanent, and decided to resume taking evidence Monday.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro and the Ohio Republican Party said they would not pursue any further appeals.

Republicans say some of the voter registrations may be fraudulent, because mail sent to some of the new voters came back undelivered. Democrats say the GOP is trying to keep poor and minorities, who move more often, from voting.

“We are very concerned that the Democratic Party is, lawsuit by lawsuit, trying to dismantle the safeguards in Ohio election law,” said Mark Weaver, Ohio Republican Party legal counsel.

David Sullivan, voter protection coordinator for the state Democratic Party, welcomed the appeals court ruling, saying it “clearly shows that this kind of scattershot, broad-net, take-a-guess kind of challenge is not going to be successful and is going to be slapped down pretty hard by a court that looks at it.”

Polls show President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are running even in Ohio. No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio; only two Democrats have done so in 100 years.

The GOP originally challenged about 35,000 voters, but withdrew about 7,500 of those challenges because of mistakes. County elections boards threw out hundreds more. Few registrations have been rejected.

Also Friday, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s top elections official, said he wants thousands of election witnesses who can question voters’ identities excluded from polling places. He told state attorneys to make that recommendation in federal court.

Petro immediately declined, saying the request was illegal. “Neither the secretary of state nor I can negotiate away the legal rights of Ohio citizens,” Petro said in a statement.

Blackwell and Petro, both Republicans, are both candidates for governor in 2006.

Democrats and Republicans have signed up thousands of polling place witnesses.

Dan Trevas, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said the state party supported the idea of removing the witnesses “if this makes the process run more smoothly.”

A black couple in Cincinnati has sued to stop Republican poll representatives in Hamilton County, arguing that the GOP is deploying most challengers in precincts with a large number of black voters. A federal judge in that case told lawyers to be ready to conclude arguments Sunday.

Under state law, voters may be challenged as to whether they are U.S. citizens, old enough to vote, are a resident of the county or precinct where they are voting, or have lived in the state for the mandatory 30 days before the election.

If challenged voters are able to convince elections officials they satisfy the requirements to vote, then they will be allowed to.

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