Minnesotans should be able to register to vote online, a bipartisan panel of legislators voted on Tuesday.

The House Elections Committee unanimously approved the practice that has been available — with considerable controversy — since last year.

"I think it's an issue that is kind of a no-brainer for the state of Minnesota," said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office began accepting online registrations in September, although the law did not specifically permit it. DFLers, Republicans, Gov. Mark Dayton and the nonpartisan legislative auditor have said that the matter should have been approved by the Legislature first. Ritchie said existing law gave him the authority to start registering voters online.

Despite a still-unsettled lawsuit to stop the Web-based registrations, more than 3,300 Minnesotans have registered to vote online. A judge is expected to rule on the case by April.

By then, the Minnesota Legislature may already have put a practical end to the question by adding the force of law to online voter registration.

A Senate panel is expected to take up next week a measure to approve online voter registration.

"We want it in law so that it is a state policy," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben, a DFLer from Newport and the chairwoman of the Senate's Rules and Administration Committee's Subcommittee on Elections.

GOP support with concern

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he agrees. "I really believe that we are all pulling in the same direction on this: that online voter registration is a good idea," said Newman, the ranking GOP member of the subcommittee.

But Newman is not willing to sign off quickly. He said that Ritchie's action violated the constitutional separation of powers and that the Legislature should not just rubber-stamp Ritchie's policy. Simply approving the current system could set a precedent in which any administration could do what it wants and gets approval later, Newman said.

Newman has a proposal that would create an online voter registration system but would invalidate the current system and the registrations of the 3,300 people who used it. He acknowledged that invalidating existing voter registrations might go too far but said, "If we can come up with some kind of compromise language whereby we can protect the Legislature … then I'm going to be happy."

The House, however, is moving ahead with its measure, which now is ready for a floor vote.

"To the extent that we can move it quickly, we're better off," Thissen said.

A tool used by many states

More than two dozen states offer voters online registration, although some states allow more limited Web-based registration than others, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

In Minnesota, online registration took off as soon as it was launched in mid-September. According to the secretary of state's office, use of the online option peaked in October, just before municipal elections. That month, nearly 1,500 people registered online. This year, more than 600 registered online.

Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, said he wished Ritchie received the Legislature's OK before starting the system but said approving online registration now is the right thing to do.

"It's going to be a good thing for our state," Sanders said. "I think it's going to be a good bipartisan piece of legislation."

Ritchie said he appreciated the bipartisan legislative work on the issue.

"We look forward to working with them to solidify this tool so voters may continue to have a modern and convenient method to register to vote, and the work of county officials is streamlined and taxpayer dollars are saved," Ritchie said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB