By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won a legal battle on Sunday when a U.S. appeals court in Ohio removed new restrictions on partisan poll watchers that Democrats had sought to prevent Election Day voter intimidation.
The rules overturned by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals would have imposed greater penalties on people who harass voters during Tuesday's election.
Voter intimidation already is prohibited under U.S. law but Democrats have pushed for greater restrictions in Ohio and five other battleground states, citing concerns that Trump's heated rhetoric might inspire Election Day chaos.
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.
On Friday U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin imposed new restrictions on those who monitor voting activity, 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.
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The Trump campaign had argued that those restrictions 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.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bill Trott)