The Maryland State Board of Elections said Friday that is looking into concerns about the potential for fraud with the online petition-gathering system being used by opponents of a new law that grants college tuition breaks to in-state illegal immigrants.
In a May 31 letter to elections officials, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland asks for a review of the online system’s legality. The group MDPetitions.com is using the system to mount what appears to be a highly effective campaign to put the new law on hold.
If the group collects 55,736 valid signatures — or 3 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election — by June 30, the law will be subject to a public referendum in November 2012. As of Thursday, election officials had verified 41,194 signatures in an ongoing tally.
“Online systems for signature gathering in support of a petition drive are new to Maryland, and raise serious questions about whether election officials can meaningfully scrutinize the authenticity of signatures, verify each signer’s intent, and investigate possible acts of fraud,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland.
The ACLU suggests that the system does not meet standards in Maryland law because it can automatically fill in other required information on the petition form based on someone’s name, Zip code and birth date. That, the ACLU argues, makes it easy to forge a signature and fraudulently submit the name of someone who has not filled out the petition.
Jared DeMarinis, a state elections official, said Friday that the elections board had received the ACLU’s letter and “is in consultation with the attorney general’s office regarding its validity.”
In a statement Friday afternoon, the leaders of MDPetitions.com called the letter “an unbelievable and baseless attempt by the ACLU to try to disenfranchise tens of thousands of Maryland voters.”
The law, signed last month by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and set to go into effect July 1, would allow students who are illegal immigrants to pay the lower in-state rates at the state’s colleges and universities.
To be eligible, students must have attended a Maryland high school for three years, provide proof that their parents are taxpayers and express their intent to become a citizen. As part of a compromise, the law directs undocumented students initially to community colleges. Those who receive an associate’s degree are then eligible to transfer and pay in-state tuition at a four-year institution.
This post has been updated since it was first published.