Arizona ballot-collection law put on hold until after election

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday put a restrictive Republican-backed Arizona ballot-collection law on hold until after Tuesday’s election, handing Democrats a victory in an intensifying state-by-state legal battle over access to the polls.

Arizona’s legislature earlier this year passed the law prohibiting advocacy groups from collecting completed early ballots from voters and delivering them to election offices as part of get-out-the-vote efforts.

Plaintiffs in the case, including the Democratic National Committee, argued the law is unconstitutional because it unfairly impacted the ability of minorities to vote.

Polls have shown Republican Donald Trump with a small lead in Arizona over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this week agreed to revisit a ruling that had refused to block the law and hear the case before an 11-judge panel. That panel voted 6-5 on Friday to prohibit Arizona from enforcing the law now, court records showed.

Arizona filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court later on Friday, asking it to reverse the 9th Circuit’s order.

Democrats have accused Republicans of enacting state laws intended to make it harder for minorities and others who tend to back Democratic candidates to cast ballots. Republicans have called these laws necessary to guard against voting fraud.

Judge Sidney Thomas, the 9th Circuit’s chief judge, wrote that the court’s action would not disrupt Arizona’s ability to conduct the U.S. presidential election.

“It simply would enjoin enforcement of a legislative act that would criminalize the collection, by persons other than the voter, of legitimately cast ballots,” Thomas wrote.

He was joined by five other judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Five dissenting 9th Circuit judges, all Republican appointees, argued that the court should not have interfered with Arizona law so close to Election Day, while early voting is already underway.

The 9th Circuit covers nine Western states, including Arizona.

“We are disappointed in this decision as it will confuse voters and depress turnout,” Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan said in a statement.

A representative for the Democratic National Committee could not immediately be reached for comment.

Acting in another voting case on Friday, a U.S. judge in Ohio ordered Trump’s campaign not to verbally harass voters near polling places or take pictures of them in the key battleground state.

Reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco; Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix, Arizona; Editing by Will Dunham