A controversial GOP-sponsored elections bill requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls is nearing the governor's desk after clearing the Minnesota House Thursday.

The measure passed on a 73-to-59 largely party-line vote after the Senate approved a similar bill last week.

The unified show of Republican support is just the latest signal that the issue has become a top GOP priority. Anticipating a likely veto from Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican lawmakers have already introduced a constitutional amendment proposal that would bypass the governor and put the issue on the ballot in 2012.

"Minnesotans are yearning for a voting system in Minnesota that removes the uncertainty that we've seen in the past few elections" said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

The bill would also eliminate vouching for Election Day registrants and create a new system of provisional balloting. The state would begin doling out free voter identification to people without an appropriate ID if they could prove their citizenship and provide a "photographic identity document."

"When you have a system that has no ID, vouching and same-day voter registration -- plus other issues that have been brought to light -- it is clear that the front of the system ... needs some improving," said bill sponsor Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake.

Backers say the changes are needed to improve Minnesota's election integrity and prevent fraud. Opponents counter that the requirements for a photo ID with current address in the precinct could hinder college students, seniors and minorities from voting.

"We need to make sure the voters in Minnesota continue to have a high level of confidence in our process," said Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester.

Democrats argued that obtaining a new or renewed ID would create costs that amount to a "poll tax." Under the bill, voters without proper ID would have to cast a provisional ballot that would not be counted until they could supply the ID.

"Legal voters in certain groups will be turned away from the polls," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "You think those voters vote for Democrats and so do we. And that's why there's a partisan split on this issue."

Lawmakers tried to appease Dayton by including a provision that would increase the frequency of campaign finance reports. Dayton has also said he wants any election law changes to have broad bipartisan support. Kiffmeyer says she has "high hopes" he will sign.

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, did not. "I just cannot understand how anyone could think that this bill would ever get signed," Lenczewski said. She voted for the bill although she said she would oppose it as a constitutional amendment.

Returned postcards

Dayton has called the bill a "solution in search of a problem," but supporters contend the current system leaves open the possibility of fraud.

Backers repeatedly have cited statistics -- provided by the conservative advocacy group Minnesota Majority -- that about 23,000 Election Day registration postcards were returned from the 2008 election. The unforwardable registration postcards are sent to newly registered voters to prove they actually live at their stated address.

"The problem is that currently we have postal verification cards being returned after Election Day," Kiffmeyer said at a recent committee hearing. "The closest record in 2008 that says 'no such person, no such residence;' 28,000 of them from the 2008 Election Day. I think that's a pretty good amount of evidence that there's a problem."

Beth Fraser, of the Secretary of State's office, contends the data show only 13,000 were the result of 2008 Election Day registrations. 10,000 of those were returned because the voter had moved, she says. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie opposes photo ID legislation.

All returned postcards from Election Day registration must be investigated by the county auditor or county attorney. County attorneys have convicted about 100 people for voting or registering illegally in the 2008 election, said John Kingrey, of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

Kingrey said almost all of those convictions were felons, who cannot legally vote if they are still on probation. They must show intent in order to be convicted.

Requiring a photo ID is not expected to have much impact on felon voting, but the Kiffmeyer bill does require judges to consult a list of ineligible voters when people register on Election Day.

'I wasn't supposed to vote?'

One of those felons is Siresa Dale Moore, who pleaded guilty last week in Ramsey County to registering illegally in 2008. An illegal voting charge was dismissed. Moore was on probation for assault when she voted in the 2008 election.

Responding to a complaint from Minnesota Majority, Ramsey County investigators visited Moore in February at Shakopee prison, where she was serving time on an unrelated charge. She had signed probation documents indicating that she could not vote but registered and voted anyway.

"I wasn't supposed to vote?" Moore told the investigators, breaking into tears, according to a criminal complaint.

"A lot of people who are felons don't know they can't vote," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. "And we do a crappy job of letting them know."

Freeman and the county attorneys are backing a bill with bipartisan authors that would notify felons who are on probation before the election that they cannot vote.

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210