Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s vetoes of four election reform bills passed last year should be upheld, according to findings released yesterday by a nonpartisan panel appointed by the governor.

The report's release came on the eve of this year's General Assembly session as Democratic leaders vowed to override several of Ehrlich's vetoes, including three of the four election measures. Democrats have called the reforms - which include early voting, absentee ballots on demand and tougher laws against voter intimidation - crucial to ensuring a just electoral system.

The fourth bill called for an independent study that would lead to establishing a voting verification system for the state's electronic voting machines. A similar study is near completion.

Gearing up for a fight to override the vetoes as early as tomorrow, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller criticized the findings as "election year rhetoric" and said the commission's report was "not worth the paper it's printed on."

"He created this commission without consulting the speaker or myself. He picked the people that he knew would support his position," Miller said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch invoked last year's 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, saying the measures help create a fair voting system. He added that concerns raised in the report about election changes, such as opening selected polling places a few days early, have not caused problems elsewhere. Early voting has been instituted in Florida and other states with success, he said.

"This is not a new phenomenon," he said. "This takes place across the country."

Both legislative leaders said they expected to have enough votes to override the vetoes.

Former U.S. Attorney George Beall, who headed the nine-member bipartisan commission, disputed that politics were at play, noting several Democrats - including former state Sen. James C. Simpson and former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg - were members.

Beall said the commission did not disagree with early voting, but that the money, staff and logistical hurdles would be too great to institute by Election Day this fall.

"There are specific obstacles to early voting this year that outweigh any perceived benefit," he said. "It's not simply money. It's time."

The report called an absentee-ballot measure unnecessary, saying the current procedure is efficient. The panel also raised concerns about a measure that would allow provisional ballots to be cast outside a voter's home jurisdiction. Beall said that because Maryland does not have a statewide list of registered voters, allowing provisional ballots to be cast outside someone's home district could encourage fraud.

Meanwhile, independent consultant Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is completing a study of voter verification systems the state could implement for its electronic voting machines.

Norris said yesterday the study encompasses four types of verification technology, including a paper trail. He said he expects the report to be complete by mid-February.

Advocates, who complain the state's Diebold electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hackers and prone to mistakes, have been pushing Democratic leadership to support a new bill this session requiring a voter-verified paper ballot.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com