Voting debacle on West Bank wasn’t fraud

In a hearing Thursday, county attorneys resolved a petition made by Phyllis Kahn’s campaign in late June questioning the validity of 141 West Bank voters.

Ethan Nelson

A voting mix-up in the Kahn-Noor race to represent the University of Minnesota’s area at the state Capitol dissolved last week as county officials dismissed recent allegations of voter fraud.

The stir began when more than 100 people improperly registered at the address of a mailbox center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. County officials have decided they will have to re-register under their home addresses.

At an administrative hearing Thursday, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office announced that the case of 141 improperly registered voters was not an intentional or organized effort, dismissing allegations of voter fraud. The Hennepin County Auditor’s office is working to release the findings of its investigation later this week.

Thursday’s hearing came about two weeks after attorney Brian Rice, on behalf of Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, filed a petition in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, automatically prompting an investigation.

Kahn is facing Somali challenger Mohamud Noor for re-election this November to continue her 42-year career as the State Representative for House District 60B, the seat that represents the West Bank, the University of Minnesota and other Minneapolis neighborhoods.

In the petition filed June 27, Rice said more than 140 people had registered 419 S. Cedar Ave. as their residential address — what is actually a commercial space lacking apartments and dominated by Somali shops and money wiring services. Under Minnesota law, voters must register at their home address.

“Voters in Minnesota must vote where they live or reside,” Rice said. “The definition of residence is as simple as where your head hits your pillow at night.”

At the hearing, Dan Rogan, a lawyer for the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, said its investigation found that there are no residents living at the address on Cedar Avenue, where some voters have registered dating as far back as 2008. And while about 70 people packed an auditorium at the Hennepin County Government Center for the discussion, none of the voters implicated in the case testified that they indeed lived there.

Their votes have been invalidated and their registrations canceled, said Hennepin County Auditor Mark Chapin at the hearing. Those voters must now register at their home address, he said.

Amano Dube, director of Cedar-Riverside’s Brian Coyle Center, said the center helps residents with registering and supplies additional voting information when it has the resources.

“If people have been fraudulent, it’s their individual responsibility to correct that,” Dube said. “But with a situation like this, it’s good to teach people it’s not acceptable to vote from a mailbox.”

But he said many people in the neighborhood have never voted before and, if they don’t speak English, rely on other residents for voting information.

“They trust each other more than someone from the election commission explaining how to vote in a language they don’t understand,” Dube said. “If they hear from another Somali or Oromo that this is the way it’s done, they trust them, and that person may be wrong.”

Omar Jamal, a Somali advocate, said the allegations made in Rice’s petition have shaken the Somali community in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

“This allegation has created a tremendous fear,” Jamal said during the hearing. “People don’t want to vote because they’re afraid they have to spend 10 years in prison.”

At the hearing, Ginny Gelms, the elections manager for Hennepin County, outlined how voters could re-register to the proper address, which Chapin urged them to do.

The controversy precedes an Aug. 12 Democratic primary that will decide which candidate, Noor or Kahn, will have the party’s support in the upcoming election.

Noor — who if elected would be the first Somali-American to serve in the state Legislature — said Rice’s petition and the automatic investigation it triggered is drawing people’s attention away from the election’s issues.

“This is a missed opportunity to bring people together,” Noor said. “Rice is trying to scare people from voting… They want to win through the court system.”

In the petition, Rice said the improper registration of 140 voters could be a “massive attempt to violate Minnesota election laws.” But Rice said he was hoping the rumors he heard prior to filing the petition were false.

Another petition filed by Rice on July 7 questions the neutrality of Minneapolis election judge Fadumo Yusuf. The petition alleges that on June 27, the first day of absentee voting, Yusuf approached voters at Minneapolis City Hall and asked them in Somali if they would vote for “our Somali brother” or “the old Jewish lady.” It is still outstanding.