By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Virginia plans to print and mail absentee ballots for its upcoming Republican presidential primary with just two contenders listed, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, a state official said on Friday, despite a court challenge from Rick Perry.
Texas Governor Perry sued Virginia election officials after he did not get the required verified signatures from voters, 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, and so they will have to be mailed by January 21. It takes about two weeks to prepare and mail ballots, a state official said.
Perry and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich 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 state 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, told Reuters.
"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.
It was not immediately clear whether Gingrich will also sue to get added to the ballot. Judge Gibney gave other candidates until January 6 to decide whether to join or oppose Perry's lawsuit.
(Reporting By Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Vicki Allen)