MARYLAND — The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has asked the state to examine an online petition-signature system that's driving an effort to overturn a new law granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants.
In a letter sent May 31 and released to the public on Friday, the ACLU told Linda Lamone, Maryland's elections administrator, that the online system invites fraud and violates a law prohibiting "pre-filled" petition forms.
But Del. Neil C. Parrott, the petition drive's leader, said organizers shared their plan with the Maryland State Board of Elections in advance.
He said the ACLU is pinning its argument on a guideline established for a different purpose: to prevent people from taking pre-printed lists of names door to door, giving a false appearance of committed support.
The ACLU's challenge probably is "an opening salvo" toward a lawsuit if the petition drive succeeds, Parrott said — a strategy that organizers expected from the start.
The board of elections is getting advice from the Maryland Attorney General's Office.
In the meantime, the board is continuing to review signatures submitted by the petition-drive organizers.
They turned in more than 58,000 on May 31, when they were required to have at least 18,579 valid signatures.
As of Friday, the board has declared 44,047 signatures valid and 9,332 signatures invalid, a success rate of about 83 percent.
The final hurdle is to have a total of 55,736 valid signatures by June 30.
If petition organizers meet the requirements for a referendum, the law, which is scheduled to take effect July 1, would be put on hold until voters decide in 2012.
The General Assembly passed the in-state tuition measure in April and Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it into law.
The law grants in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants as long as they graduate from a Maryland high school, then go to a community college. They or their families must have paid income tax or filed a return for three years.
Donna Duncan, the director of the board of elections' Election Management Division, said the state is continuing its review of the petitions and noted the upcoming deadline. Local boards of election, which are verifying petitions, must submit their results to the state by June 20.
Duncan declined to comment on the ACLU's concerns.
The attorney general's office is reviewing the ACLU's letter, said Steve Ruckman, a spokesman for the office. He didn't know when the office would have answers to the ACLU's concerns.
Parrott said that about half of the signatures were collected through the group's website, www.mdpetitions.com.
People can go to the site and enter a few details about themselves. The website will find and fill in their name as it appears on their voter registration. The user then prints out the form, signs it and mails it in.
The ACLU, which supports the in-state tuition law, alleged flaws with the online petition approach, claiming it "could be highly susceptible to fraud."
Anyone who knows another person's name, ZIP code and birth date could register as that person and forge the signature, the ACLU contends.
But Parrott said the signature actually is a safeguard: The submitted signature can be matched to the original in voter-registration records.
He said the ACLU's position is hypocritical because the group has argued against bills to require that voters show photo ID at the polls.
Another point of contention is whether the computer system complies with a state law that people who sign petitions supply their own names and addresses, rather than having someone — or something — else do it.
Parrott said someone who initiates the voter registration database search online is filling out the form himself.