State election law could see serious changes under a Republican bill that would require Minnesotans to show photo identification that would be instantly scanned to determine their eligibility.

Minnesota law does not require voters to present ID if they have already registered. The bill would require a state-issued driver's license or other approved photo ID. The state would purchase a network of broadband-linked tools to be installed in nearly every precinct.

Voter ID legislation has been introduced by Republicans in the past with little success, but new Republican majorities could send the bill to the governor's desk. Republicans say the legislation is needed to prevent voting discrepancies. Democrats call the bill costly and unnecessary, saying it could disenfranchise thousands of college students and senior citizens.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie estimated that a network of ID verification machines could cost the state more than $20 million.

To accommodate those who lack an approved photo ID, the bill mandates that the state issue identification cards free of charge. Those cards currently cost about $20 each.

"The integrity of our entire election process hinges on two critical issues," said Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, a bill sponsor. "A photo identification ... would satisfy and verify that the individual casting the vote is the person that they in fact are claiming to be. And the second is also to verify that the individual is voting in the precinct where they belong."

Limmer said there have been suspicions raised in the past about Minnesota's elections process, citing a long-since-debunked story about an elections official that supposedly had been driving with ballots in the car trunk.

"Why is it we have to wait a few days and then find a bundle of ballots in a box in someone's trunk of their car?" Limmer said.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, the House sponsor of the bill and a former secretary of state, said the electronic system would address discrepancies from the 2010 recount over the number of ballots and voters. A state Supreme Court decision rejected the notion that state election officials had not properly reconciled the number of votes and voters, and two back-to-back statewide recounts failed to turn up significant evidence of voter fraud.

Minnesota's last two major statewide elections have been decided by the merest fraction of total votes cast.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has said in the past that he opposes photo ID requirements.

DFL Rep. Steve Simon of St. Louis Park said there were 38 convictions for voter fraud in 2008 -- all attributable to felons trying to vote. "This is something that's way out of balance," Simon said. "It's basically redesigning our entire election system so that we can get at 38 people at the cost -- the considerable cost -- of fencing out thousands of law-abiding Minnesota voters."

The scanners would cross-reference the identification card against the state's voter registration database, which contains information on whether an individual has a felony conviction.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, called the bill "a solution in search of a problem." She said the state "has a long tradition of clean elections with little or no evidence of voter fraud."

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210