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Judge won't end order targeting voter intimidation

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BILL NEWILL | December 2, 2009 09:16 PM EST | AP

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TRENTON, N.J. — A federal judge in New Jersey has denied a request by the Republican National Committee to dissolve a 27-year-old court order aimed at preventing intimidation of minority voters.

In his ruling Tuesday in Newark, U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise said voter intimidation remains a threat and preventing it outweighs the potential danger of voter fraud.

But the judge did modify the order, loosening some of the restrictions on Republican activities, and set a 2017 date for its expiration.

The order resulted from a lawsuit filed in New Jersey in 1981, but applies nationwide.

Democrats claimed a Republican "ballot security" program in minority neighborhoods violated the federal Voting Rights Act. The program included using mailed sample ballots returned as undeliverable to compile lists of voters to be challenged at the polls and stationing off-duty police and sheriff's officers near polling places.

The Republican National Committee chose to settle the 1981 suit by entering into the consent decree in November 1982.

The order was modified in 1987 to require that the Republicans get court approval before engaging in ballot security efforts, which were defined as any efforts to prevent or remedy voter fraud.

In seeking to end the order, Republicans argued that changes in state and federal election laws have significantly increased the danger of voter fraud and that the consent decree was hampering its efforts to combat it. The Democratic National Committee countered that the Republicans were exaggerating the threat.

In his 79-page ruling, Debevoise said that "neither changed factual circumstances nor developments in state and federal election laws justify vacating the Consent Decree, but modification is required."

In a statement Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee called the ruling "a victory for all Americans who believe that every eligible citizen should have the right to vote and have their vote counted."

RNC spokeswoman Kate Wright said the modifications are a step in the right direction, but "there is still work to do in order for the RNC to be able to compete on a level playing field and ensure fair elections across the country."