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Judges Block Republicans Trying To Challenge Eligibility at Polls

By James Dao and Adam Liptak

The New York Times -- COLUMBUS, Ohio

Two federal judges in Ohio, ruling within hours of each other, have blocked the Republican Party here from placing thousands of people inside polling places to challenge the eligibility of voters on Tuesday, an important victory for Democrats who argued that the challengers would have intimidated minority voters.

The back-to-back rulings, one just before midnight on Sunday and the other early Monday morning, have already been appealed. They came as squadrons of lawyers from both parties in Ohio and other swing statesprepared for Election Day skirmishes that will include the use of arcane laws that allow challenges at the polls.

Republican officials said they intended to mount such challenges in Philadelphia and in some places in Florida and are considering similar actions in New Mexico. They are also appealing the two rulings in Ohio, nursing eleventh-hour hopes that they will still be able to deploy more than 3,600 challengers at voting places by the opening of polls at 6:30 Tuesday morning.

The two rulings may also foreshadow lawsuits that are likely to be filed if the election is close in any state crucial to the Electoral College calculus. Lawyers for both sides are already examining disparities in election policies, nuances in court rulings and potential irregularities at polling places for material that may be used to challenge results in places where margins are paper thin.

The battle over Election Day challenges has been most intense in Ohio, not only because the race here is so close and so vital to President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, but also because the Republican Party has announced larger and more aggressive plans to challenge voters here than in other states.

The Republicans contend that challenging -- a practice that has been allowed under state law for decades but rarely used -- will weed out fraud often missed by election workers. Democrats assert that the challenges disproportionately single out low-income and minority voters, which Republicans deny.