WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Court of Appeals in Ohio removed new restrictions on partisan poll watchers that Democrats had sought to prevent Election Day voter intimidation, handing the Trump campaign a legal victory in the hotly contested state that could set a precedent elsewhere.
The rules overturned by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals were designed to allow harsher penalties on people caught harassing voters during Tuesday’s election.
There are already laws restricting voter intimidation, but Democrats have pushed for harsher rules in Ohio and five other battleground states, citing concerns that Trump’s heated rhetoric might inspire Election Day violence and chaos.
CBS News’ Jeff Pegues reported last month that federal law enforcement officials are concerned about the increasing calls for violence on and following Election Day, particularly from Donald Trump’s supporters.
On the campaign trail, Trump has warned the election may be rigged and has called on supporters to keep an eye on voting activity for possible signs of fraud in large cities. Numerous studies have found that U.S. voter fraud is exceedingly rare.
And while there have not been widespread instances of intimidation during the early voting period thus far, isolated incidents have occurred. In Virginia, for example, a woman said a Trump supporter carrying a gun and handing out Republican literature harassed her and her young son when they tried to enter the polling place without taking a piece of his literature. Police declined to intervene because Virginia is an open-carry state.
On Friday U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin imposed new restrictions on those who monitor voting activity in Ohio, saying they may not interrogate voters within 100 feet of a polling place, block them from entering, or photograph them as they come and go. Those found to violate the rules could be held in contempt of court.
The Trump campaign had argued that those restrictions violated First Amendment rights and were not justified, given that there had been no reported instances of voter harassment in the state so far.
“In the end, plaintiff’s case rested on rhetoric, not evidence,” Trump attorney Chad Readler wrote in a court filing on Saturday.
The appeals court sided with Trump, lifting the new rules two days before Election Day. The ruling came before Democrats had a chance to respond to Readler’s motion and the party said it may appeal.
“We are stunned that a court would rule without even allowing one of the parties to file a memo explaining their case, but that is exactly what the Sixth Circuit has done in this decision. We are exploring our options to reverse this unfortunate ruling,” Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis said.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.