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Ehrlich commission backs vetoes of 4 election reform bills

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

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

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

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

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

House Speaker Michael E. Busch invoked last year's 40th anniversary of theVoting Rights Act, saying the measures help create a fair voting system. Headded that concerns raised in the report about election changes, such asopening selected polling places a few days early, have not caused problemselsewhere. Early voting has been instituted in Florida and other states withsuccess, he said.

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

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

Former U.S. Attorney George Beall, who headed the nine-member bipartisancommission, 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 themoney, staff and logistical hurdles would be too great to institute byElection Day this fall.

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

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

Meanwhile, independent consultant Donald F. Norris, a public policyprofessor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is completing astudy of voter verification systems the state could implement for itselectronic voting machines.

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

Advocates, who complain the state's Diebold electronic voting machines arevulnerable to hackers and prone to mistakes, have been pushing Democraticleadership to support a new bill this session requiring a voter-verified paperballot.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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