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Supreme Court gives Obama camp a win in Ohio early voting tussle

By Dan Burns

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday denied Ohio's request to curtail early voting in the state, a victory for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign which had battled Republican efforts to scale back in-person balloting in the days leading up to Election Day.

Ohio, critical to the election hopes of Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, began early in-person voting earlier this month but planned to cut it off on November 2, the Friday before the election, except for members of the military.

The Obama campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Ohio Democratic Party had sued Ohio officials to restore early voting right up to the eve of election day. Republicans opposed their efforts, saying a cutoff was needed to reduce voter fraud and ease the burden on election officials.

In states that allow voters to cast ballots before election day, early voting and extended voting hours are thought to benefit Democratic candidates because lower-income people, who tend to vote for them, are more likely to work odd hours.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos national survey, about 10 percent of likely voters have already cast ballots. And of those who have voted, Obama holds a sizable lead over Romney - 56 percent to 35 percent. The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of plus or minus about five percentage points.

That contrasts with a much closer race according to polls of likely voters. There, the president holds just a slight edge of 46 percent to 43 percent in Tuesday's Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll.

Earlier this month, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a U.S. District Court order that reinstated early voting in the final days before the election. The state had appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

'END OF THE ROAD'

In a one-sentence order on Tuesday, the high court denied the state's petition for a stay of the appeals court decision.

"This action from the highest court in the land marks the end of the road in our fight to ensure open voting this year for all Ohioans, including military, veterans, and overseas voters." Obama campaign General Counsel Bob Bauer said in a statement.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, the state's top elections official, called the 6th Circuit's decision an unprecedented intrusion by federal judges into state elections that was illegal and impractical.

"Despite the court's decision today to deny our request for a stay, I firmly believe Ohio and its elected legislature should set the rules with respect to elections in Ohio, and not the federal court system," Husted said in a statement. "However, the time has come to set aside the issue for this election."

The appeals court's decision did not require polls to be open on the final three days, leaving it up to the discretion of the state's 88 individual county election boards.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, however, Husted directed all state polling places to adopt the same hours for the balance of early voting.

"Today I have set uniform hours statewide, giving all Ohio voters the same opportunities to vote in the upcoming presidential election regardless of what county they live in," Husted said.

For the final three days before the election, Ohio voters may cast ballots between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 3; from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 4; and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m on Monday, November 5.

A coalition of 15 states, including Colorado, Wisconsin and Virginia, filed a supporting brief for Ohio on Friday, encouraging the court to block the 6th Circuit's ruling. They said Ohio had not placed a burden on citizens' ability to vote by eliminating the three early voting days.

(Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman)

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