By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An appeals court on Tuesday rejected a request by candidates Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich to be added to the Virginia ballot in the state's March 6 Republican presidential primary election, saying they knew the rules and failed to qualify.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and congressman Ron Paul were the only two candidates to qualify for the primary in Virginia by submitting the 10,000 verifiable signatures by the deadline. Romney is the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination to face Democratic President Barack Obama on November 6.
Perry and other presidential candidates sued Virginia election officials to be added to the ballot, arguing that the state's qualification process limited voter access to the candidates of their choosing.
A federal judge ruled against them on Friday. Perry went to the appeals court, filing an emergency motion. Gingrich also filed a notice of appeal.
The three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously ruled against them, saying the candidates knew the rules well in advance and that the requirements have been on the books for years.
"If we were to grant the requested relief, we would encourage candidates for president who knew the requirements and failed to satisfy them to seek at a tardy and belated hour to change the rules of the game," the appeals court said.
"This would not be fair to the states or to other candidates who did comply with the prescribed processes in a timely manner and it would throw the presidential nominating process into added turmoil," it concluded in a 22-page ruling.
The state has said the ballots must be mailed to absentee voters by January 21 to comply with election laws.
Perry wanted his name to appear alongside others on the ballot or wanted an injunction requiring that the state not order, print or mail ballots while the case was pending before the appeals court.
The appeals court said the candidates had every opportunity to challenge the Virginia ballot requirements at a time earlier when it would not have created the disruption that the last-minute lawsuit has.
According to the ruling, Perry submitted fewer than 10,000 signatures while Gingrich claimed that he submitted 11,050 signatures, but state officials said fewer than 10,000 of them were valid. Gingrich has blamed fraud by a campaign worker who turned in faked signatures.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said he was pleased with the ruling and "that Virginia's orderly election process will be able to move forward."
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)