MARYLAND — Voters in 2012 will decide whether a new law benefiting illegal immigrants attending Maryland colleges will stand, after elections officials ruled that a petition drive had nearly twice as many valid signatures as needed to put the question on the ballot.
The Maryland State Board of Elections told petition drive organizer Del. Neil Parrott in a letter on Friday that 108,923 signatures were accepted, well over the 55,736 that were required.
Another 23,148 signatures were rejected, for an approval rate of about 82 percent.
The law, giving in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants, was scheduled to go into effect July 1, but will be on hold pending the outcome of next year's referendum.
Supporters say the law will help guarantee access to higher education for people who have grown up in Maryland, regardless of their immigration status.
To qualify, people must meet certain benchmarks, such as graduating from a Maryland high school, going to a community college and paying income tax or filing a return for three years.
Critics call it an unfair reward for people living in the state illegally, forcing other taxpayers to subsidize their college education.
Parrott, R-Washington, was a central figure in the petition drive, which lasted about two months. He put up $2,500 of his own money for upfront expenses.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, R-Baltimore/Harford, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, also was a guiding force for the petition drive.
"When we started this petition drive, we knew that Maryland voters wanted more financial responsibility in Annapolis and wanted the enforcement of our immigration laws, not ways to skirt around the law. Today marks the beginning of the end for an illegal alien benefits bill that simply does not make sense," Parrott wrote in a news release distributed Friday,
About 30 percent of the people who signed petitions were Democrats, and 15 percent were unaffiliated, the release said.
A distinctive feature of this petition drive was a website that let people tap into a voter-registration database. The computer system retrieved each user's name as it appears in voter records, cutting down on the possibility of errors.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland last month asked the state to examine the online petition system, alleging that it was susceptible to fraud and violates a law prohibiting "pre-filled" petition forms.
At first, McDonough guessed that the website could lead to as many as 90 percent of the group's signatures.
The final count was far less. Elections board records show that about 33 percent of the valid signatures in the final count were obtained with the help of the website.
The board didn't provide a breakdown of how many rejected signatures were obtained through the website.
The ACLU sent its challenge to Linda Lamone, Maryland's election administrator, in a May 31 letter. The elections board forwarded the challenge to the state attorney general's office.
David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General's Office, said Friday that the office's advice to the board was that the website system was a valid process.