A bill that was to have gone into effect this week, allowing undocumented immigrants to attend college in Maryland at in-state tuition rates, will be put on hold while officials work on verifying signatures that opponents of the measure collected on a petition calling for a referendum.

Republican Delegate Neil Parrott, who has been leading the petition drive, said before the Thursday night deadline that he was bringing a petition with more than the 8,448 signatures needed, in addition to the 47,288 the Maryland State Board of Elections already has validated.

"We have that minimum number, and the question is how far above that number do we have," Parrott, R-Washington, said Wednesday.

Parrott was bringing the petitions to the Maryland Secretary of State's office at 7 p.m. Thursday to meet a midnight deadline.

Upon the submission of the signatures, local elections boards would have until July 20 to verify them and return them to the Maryland State Board of Elections. Then, the state elections board will have two days to determine whether the 55,736 signatures needed are valid. If opponents fail to get the needed signatures, the bill would take effect Aug. 1.

If opponents ultimately succeed in putting the measure on the ballot, it will be the first time Maryland will have a referendum from a successful petition drive since 1992, when voters approved a bill guaranteeing abortion rights in Maryland.

An important part of the petition drive has involved using an online tool to make it easier for registered voters to submit signatures. The website provides the information a voter would need to include with his or her signature for it to be valid. More than a third of the signatures already validated by the board came from the website.

Parrott said organizers of the petition drive aimed to have 100,000 total signatures so they would have plenty to spare in case some were disqualified for technical reasons. Organizers also are bracing for legal challenges.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has written to the state elections board to ask that the legality of the online system be examined. The ACLU contends the online system at mdpetitions.com could be susceptible to fraud.

"We believe that the state board of elections needs to make a decision about online systems, and if they are going to be used, how they can conform to state law, because we do believe the system being used by mdpetitions.com is not in compliance with state elections law in addition to being susceptible to fraud," said Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maryland.

The measure was one of the most high-profile and contentious bills approved by the General Assembly in April. The House of Delegates passed the bill on a 74-65 vote. The Senate approved the legislation 27-20.

The bill allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at four-year public colleges if they complete two years at a community college after attending three years of high school. Students also will have to show that their parents paid state income taxes. Male students would be required to sign up for Selective Service to be eligible for the draft.

The Maryland legislation includes a provision that requires undocumented immigrants receiving the reduced tuition rate to count as a part of the school's out-of-state student pool, so in-state student slots for Maryland residents won't be affected.

This is based on a story by The Associated Press.

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