Backers of gambling legalization in The District of Columbia yesterday submitted 998 pages of signatures on petition forms calling for a November 6 referendum on the issue.

The Board of Elections and Ethics, wose staff received the petition, has scheduled a special meeting today at which a preliminarry tally of the signatures will be presented.

A total of 12,451 signatures of city voters is needed to qualify the question for the ballot. That total must include at least 5 percent of the voters from each of five of the city's eight election wards.

If enough signatures are filed to meet the requirement, officials said opponents will be permitted to challenge teir validity during a 10-day their validity during a 10-day period starting next Sunday.

The foot-thick stack of petition forms was presented to Delores M. Woods, the city's chief voting registrar, by Jerry Cooper, vice chairman of D.C. Citizens for Legalized Gambling, a group organized to promote the referendum.

Cooper was accompained to the election board's office by Richard K. Lyon and Martin E. Firstone, who are members of the citizen gambling group and lawyers for the Washington Jai Alai Corp. If the referendum wins, Lyon said the firm hopes to win a franchise to conduct matches in the city with parimutael betting.

Lyon and Firestone said they hired an unspecified number of young people at $60 an hour to stand on street corners and other places to ask voters to sign the petition.

They told reporters that they regard such payments as legal, and not barred by the new D.C. law that governs the referendum process.

The law makes it a criminal offense to pay anyone "to induce him or her to . . . procure . . . any signatures" on a petition form. Violations are punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail.

Lyon said the payments were not made to "induce" anybody to do anything, but to compensate them for the time spent collecting signatures. Three lawyers for the city declined direct comment, saying the issue had not officially been raised. One added that the provision clearly was designed to prevent "buying election."