WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Virginia plans to print and mail absentee ballots for its upcoming Republican presidential primary with only candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul listed, a state official said on Friday, despite a court challenge from Rick Perry.
Texas Governor Perry sued Virginia election officials after state Republican officials ruled he did not get the required number of verified voter signatures, arguing the state's qualification process limits voters' access to the candidates of their choosing.
U.S. District Judge John Gibney set a January 13 hearing on the matter.
To comply with laws that protect overseas absentee voters, the state must send ballots to them at least 45 days before the March 6 primary contest, meaning they will have to be mailed by January 21. It takes about two weeks to prepare and mail ballots, a state official said.
Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich also failed to get the 10,000 verifiable signatures, including at least 400 qualified voters from each congressional district, that are necessary to be included in Virginia's primary.
They are among the field of Republicans vying for the party's nomination to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 general election. The party nominee is chosen after contests pitting the candidates in individual states.
A Virginia official said the state will proceed with printing and mailing ballots with only former Massachusetts Governor Romney and U.S. Representative Paul listed.
"We need to proceed with the normal preparation and printing of absentee ballots that will allow us to meet those deadlines," Donald Palmer, secretary at the Virginia state board of elections, said.
"Those are hard deadlines and so we're going to proceed on our normal schedule," he said, adding that it takes a couple of weeks to prepare, print and mail absentee ballots. "So there's really no way to wait until the ruling to mail our ballots."
Without court intervention, that would make it difficult for Perry or Gingrich to get on the Virginia ballot. The court could order the state to reprint and re-issue them, a prospect that Palmer said would be expensive and would force the state to miss the statutory deadline.
A spokesman for Gingrich said his campaign likely will join Perry's lawsuit but a final decision has not yet been made. Judge Gibney gave candidates until January 6 to decide whether to join or oppose Perry's lawsuit.
"We are looking at whether or not we will join the Perry lawsuit," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in Des Moines. "Right now its under consideration -- (it's) more likely than not."
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Des Moines, Iowa; Editing by Bill Trott