ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — With Minnesota’s new online voter registration system in legal limbo, state lawmakers on Tuesday started mapping out a backup plan.

The House Elections Committee opened debate on how to structure a virtual portal to allow remote registration and to submit online applications for absentee ballots. The bill would effectively ratify and also expand on a system set up by Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Ritchie is being sued for going forward without legislative consent. A Ramsey County judge’s ruling could be months away, with the latest legal submissions in the case due Wednesday.

Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser testified that the system has been running while the lawsuit proceeds. So far, it has been used by more than 2,500 people, mostly to update existing registrations after a move or a name change.

Rep. Steve Simon, a Hopkins Democrat, said it would be foolish for the state to back away from a Web-based registration option “in an era when we all transact so much online.” His bill would grandfather people who signed up through Ritchie’s portal.

Nineteen states have embraced online registration as a way to cut costs, reduce data entry errors and add convenience. Minnesota officials argue that it should result in people registering earlier, reducing polling place lines caused by the state’s Election Day registration option.

People using the system must present verifiable identification data such as a driver’s license or Social Security number in addition to birthdates and addresses; their applications will be checked in a similar fashion as before. But advocates say there are fewer avenues for errors because administrators don’t have to input voter information into a database.

Some lawmakers say they want data security and fraud prevention mechanisms spelled out clearly, especially with other personal information breaches putting consumers on edge.

“What do Target, Neimann Marcus, Michaels and MNsure all have in common? Cybersecurity issues,” said Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell.

Fraser and state elections director Gary Poser said databases managed by the secretary of state’s office already have special encryption and intrusion prevention features. Monthly audits are done to seek out unauthorized use and election managers are trained to spot suspicious patterns.

Dan McGrath, who heads the conservative Minnesota Majority group that sued Ritchie, told the committee that state law needs more precise language to prosecute people who attempt to fraudulently register. An online system makes jurisdiction murky, he said.

“If done wrong it can be a wide-open backdoor to abuse,” McGrath said.

Any action by the Legislature must wait until the session convenes in late February.

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