Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree that online voter registration is a good idea -- if it is done right.

At least, that consensus emerged Tuesday during a Minnesota House Elections Committee hearing on a bill that would authorize online registration and absentee ballot applications.

Registering online is "user friendly, cheaper and more reliable" than filling out paper applications, said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, the committee chairman and bill sponsor.

Minnesota voters already can register electronically. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie started accepting online registrations in September. So far, about 2,500 voters have registered on the new website.

But a group of Republican legislators and two election watchdog groups filed a lawsuit in November challenging the validity of the new registrations, arguing that Ritchie exceeded his legal power by creating the new system without the Legislature's authorization. Ramsey County District Court Judge John Guthmann is expected to rule on the case in March.

Regardless of how the judge rules, Simon said lawmakers should make sure that online registration is legal and secure.

Both voters and local election officials want it, said Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser.

"Everyone wants to increase access" to voting, said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. But he cautioned that the legislation should include security provisions to prevent voter fraud.

Even one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Ritchie offered suggestions on how to strengthen the bill to ensure the integrity of elections.

"If done right, online registration can be a harmless and simple additional convenience for voters and assist county officials," said Dan McGrath, president of the watchdog group Minnesota Majority. "If done wrong, however, it can be a wide-open back door to abuse.

"Do it right, or don't to it at all," McGrath said.

Simon said he would consider those and other suggestions to craft a bill that both parties support. Nineteen other states have online voter registration, he said, and "it's time to harness the technology" in Minnesota.

The committee did not act on the bill. Simon said he would bring it up for a vote after the Legislature reconvenes Feb. 25.

©2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)