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Opponents of tuition break for illegal immigrants near petition goal

The petition drive to give voters a chance to reject in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants is fewer than 8,500 signatures shy of succeeding, the Maryland State Board of Elections reported Wednesday.

Elections officials said they had certified 47,288 names from the first batch of signatures, which were submitted at the end of May. Petition organizers must reach 55,736 valid signatures — a number equal to 3 percent of the voters in last year's gubernatorial election — to get the controversial law onto the 2012 ballot.

They plan to turn in tens of thousands of new signatures by the June 30 deadline.

"Marylanders understand what's in this bill, and that's why so many people want to be part of what we are doing," Del. Neil Parrott, the Washington County Republican who launched the drive, said this week.

The first batch of signatures included 17,092 gathered through a website set up by the petition organizers, according to Donna Duncan, an elections board official. The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland have said they plan to sue over those submissions, alleging the website — mdpetitions.com — is susceptible to fraud.

Another 30,196 signatures were gathered by volunteers who have been hitting the streets, knocking on doors and approaching residents.

The board rejected 10,217 signatures that belonged to people who are not registered voters or failed to meet the state's stringent requirements for petitions.

A ruling this week on another petition effort could have an impact on those rules.

The case concerns the Green and Libertarian parties, which lost their offiicial status in Maryland after failing to win enough votes in the gubernatorial election last year.

The parties petitioned to regain their places on the state ballot, turning in about 16,000 signatures each. But the elections board voided thousands of petitions on which the signer failed to use a middle initial or middle name, abbreviated a first name or employed some other variation.

As a result, the parties fell short of the 10,000 valid signatures needed to regain their status. They sued the elections board, saying officials had wrongly invalidated the signatures of thousands of registered voters.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, an Anne Arundel County Circuit judge sided with the parties.

Retired Judge Eugene M. Lerner, who was brought in for the case, agreed with the plaintiffs that the printed name is but one of many ways to verify that the signer is a registered voter.

The elections board, which is represented by the state attorney general, has a month to appeal Lerner's decision. A spokesman for the office said officials are reviewing their options.

An appeal could land the contentious middle-name issue back in court — a step the state might or might not want to take with the far more politically heated in-state tuition petition waiting in the wings.

Parrott has said his goal is to submit at least 100,000 signatures, nearly double the required number, to overcome any legal challenge by the ACLU or Casa de Maryland.

Parrott said he hopes to have volunteers stationed outside every Motor Vehicle Administration building in the state during hours of business this weekend.

If he and supporters reach their goal, the tuition law will be suspended until Maryland voters decide in November 2012.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the law in May after it was approved by narrow majorities in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

To qualify for the in-state tutition rate, an illegal immigrant would have to attend high school in Maryland for three years and show that his or her family had filed state tax returns.

The student then could attend a community college at the in-state rate. After completing 60 credits, he or she could transfer to a four-year college, again at the residential discount.

Children of military members who call another state home but are stationed in Maryland also stand to benefit from the new law.

The legislation would save eligible students $4,000 to $6,000 per year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. At a four-year institution, the savings would increase: In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.

Legislative analysts estimate that the measure would cost the state about $800,000 in the first year, rising to $3.5 million annually by 2016. Opponents say the cost could be far higher.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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