Organizers of a petition to repeal Maryland's Dream Act turned in their first batch of signatures Tuesday, which they hope will be a sufficient step toward forcing a referendum on the controversial law.
Petitioners had until Tuesday to submit at least 18,579 valid voter signatures — one-third of the 55,736 due by June 30 — to the Maryland secretary of state's office. If organizers meet both requirements, the law allowing many illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition would be suspended and put to a November 2012 statewide vote.
Organizers said they planned to turn in more than 40,000 signatures Tuesday night, though the signatures must still be validated by state election officials. The validation process must be completed by June 22, but election officials said it is unlikely to take that long.
"People are clamoring to sign this petition because they know that this is the right thing to do for Maryland," said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, a Washington Republican who has led the petition drive.
The Dream Act passed the General Assembly in April after heated debate in the session's final days and was signed into law on May 10 by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. It is slated to go into effect July 1.
Opponents of the law began collecting signatures in mid-April, after the language in their petition received clearance from the state Board of Elections and attorney general's office.
They set a goal of 35,000 signatures by Tuesday's deadline, relying mostly on petition drives at public events and downloadable versions of the petition at their website, mdpetitions.com.
Organizers said they will continue with the same approach as they work toward the requirement of 55,736 signatures by June 30. The total is equal to 3 percent of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election.
"Whether [Dream Act supporters] heed the message or not, it doesn't matter because now the people are going to speak," said Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore Republican and honorary co-chairman of the petition drive.
Mr. Parrott estimated the petition drive has thus far cost less than $5,000.
The signatures that were turned in Tuesday must now be processed by the state Board of Elections, which will review and separate the signature pages by county before passing them on to their assigned local election boards.
The local boards will then have to review each signature to make sure it satisfies state requirements. The state board will conduct a final review of all the signatures.
Many signatures could be invalidated, as petitions often have hundreds or thousands of signatures thrown out due to technicalities, including missing dates, incorrect addresses, and signature errors such as using a nickname or omitting a middle initial.
Mary C. Wagner, the state Board of Elections' director of voter registration and petitions, declined Tuesday to estimate how long the verification process could take but said delays could result if a particular county election board has to process an especially large number of signatures.
Ms. Wagner said the state Board of Elections will begin providing daily updates Friday at its website: elections.state.md.us.
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