Resident Keyona Godfrey was willing to sign the petition.

Resident Keyona Godfrey was willing to sign the petition. Pasadena Councilman Derek Fink was knocking on doors on Kings Bench Place in the Chesterfield neighborhood of Pasadena, collecting signatures to put the illegal immigrant tuition repeal on the ballot. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / June 14, 2011)

The red-and-white placards outside the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Frederick strike some as an invitation: "Sign petition here. No in-state tuition for illegal immigrants."

One after another, supporters walk up. Over the course of the morning, Carol Geisbert welcomes, among others, a Montgomery County mother of three college-bound teens, a truck driver named Dewey Sayers and a 28-year-old Frederick Community College student wearing a Beastie Boys T-shirt.

Two Carroll County sisters in their 60s practically skip to the table.

All are eager to get their hands on the petition.

"Just tell me where to sign," says one of the sisters, Pat Baumgardner, who whistles as she approaches. "I got better things to use my tax money for."

Over the past two months, volunteers such as Geisbert have fanned out across the state to gather signatures for the petition to give voters the final say on the controversial new law that extends in-state tuition discounts to illegal immigrants.

The Republican-led effort will come to a head next week. If the petitioners can collect 55,736 valid signatures by June 30, implementation of the law would be suspended and the measure would be put on the 2012 ballot.

That appears likely, as the state Board of Elections has certified more than 47,000 names from a preliminary round of submissions last month, and organizers plan to submit many more before the deadline.

They have relied heavily on a website linked to the state's voter registration database — a new method that advocates for immigrants say they will challenge in court.

But the petitioners say they have gathered tens of thousands of signatures the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors, setting up tables at local festivals and community meetings, and approaching Marylanders as they go about their lives.

In recent weeks, the ground operation has attracted the attention of Casa de Maryland. Volunteers and paid workers for the immigrant advocacy group have gone to petition sites to intercept would-be signers and make the case for the new law.

To qualify for the tuition break, 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.

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.

During the petition drive, some of the encounters between the sides have been testy. At the Rockville Hometown Celebration on Memorial Day weekend, Casa de Maryland organizer Kim Propeack said, she was jeered by petitioners who at one point surrounded her.

"It was pretty rough," Propeack said. "I think they were shocked to see that we were willing to get out there and present the other side."

The petitioners say she was physically blocking people who wanted to sign.

Petitioners have occasionally been booted from public spaces, including post offices, parks and pedestrian areas outside Camden Yards during Orioles games.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an attorney, has intervened, telling authorities who have tried to block the volunteers that they are violating the First Amendment and the Maryland Constitution. Armed with advice from the office of the attorney general about the right to gather signatures in public places, the Eastern Shore Republican has won back access to Camden Yards and other places.