WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge in Virginia on Friday refused to order that candidates Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman be added to the ballot in the state's March 6 Republican presidential primary election after they 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 the other 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.
But Judge John Gibney ruled the candidates filed their legal challenge too late, finding the harm they suffered began when they started collecting the necessary signatures because they were required to use Virginia residents to do so.
Such a requirement was likely unconstitutional and had the candidates sued earlier, the judge said he could have granted permission to use people from outside Virginia to collect signatures.
"It is too late for the court to allow them to gather more signatures - the absentee ballots must go out now," Gibney wrote in a 22-page opinion issued after a hearing in Richmond.
The state argued those ballots must be mailed to absentee voters by January 21 to comply with election laws.
Gibney did rule the requirement of 10,000 verifiable signatures legal, saying it was "a minimal number" and that six candidates made the primary ballot four years ago under the same rules.
The candidates could appeal his ruling.
(Reporting By Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Will Dunham)