updated 10/29/2004 11:33:04 AM ET 2004-10-29T15:33:04

Republicans lost an attempt Friday to restart hearings on thousands of voter registrations contested by the GOP, and the court’s action could mean the hearings will never be held.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati turned down several Republican appeals, clearing the way for a lower-court judge to decide whether to extend her temporary order stopping the hearings.

The court action could prevent the hearings from ever taking place because they must be held within two days of the election, state Republicans have said.

Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, who filed one of the appeals, said stopping the hearings “has just thrown Ohio’s electoral process into disarray, and has opened the door to voter fraud.”

A fresh challenge arose Thursday over the presence of polling-place witnesses who can question voters’ identities. In federal court in Ohio, the Summit County Democratic Party sued the state to block those witnesses, saying voters who end up being disqualified are unconstitutionally denied the right to appeal in time to cast their ballots.

Democrats and Republicans have signed up thousands of polling place representatives, although Democrats say they do not plan to challenge registrations and will monitor the conduct of Republican representatives.

Ohio could end up deciding who wins the White House. No Republican has ever been elected president without taking Ohio; only two Democrats have done so in 100 years. Polls show the race is too close to call in the state.

On the questioned voter registrations, the GOP originally challenged about 35,000 voters but has had little success in having registrations rejected. The party withdrew about 7,500 challenges because of mistakes, and county elections boards have thrown out hundreds more.

U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott in Cincinnati was holding a hearing Friday to determine whether to extend her order halting hearings on Republican challenges of registrations in six counties.

Republicans say challenged voters still could cast a provisional ballot regardless of the outcome of the hearings. If the margin of the election is close the race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry could come down to provisional ballots.

Provisional ballots are cast by voters whose names don’t show up on a poll list in their precinct or who have moved and haven’t updated their registration. The counting of such ballots doesn’t occur until 10 days after the election as voters’ registrations are verified.

Democrats, who sued to stop the Republican challenges, say the voters being challenged should have the right to cast a regular ballot.

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