Brian Rice, the attorney for Minnesota state Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL) dropped what seemed to be a political bombshell when two weeks ago he accused the campaign of Kahn’s challenger to have orchestrated “a massive voter fraud”. At the center of his allegation was that 147 individuals were registered to vote at 419 Cedar Avenue South, a mailbox center in Minneapolis used by Somalis as a mailing address. The law requires individuals to register and vote at the precinct in which they reside using their home address. The story made some sensational headlines both in local media and in national conservative blogs including the Tea Party hub, Redstate.com.
KSTP first broke the news the same day Rice filed his petition with Hennepin County Auditor.
The attorney for Phyllis Kahn says he got word Thursday night; there might be hundreds of people who are registering and voting using an address that’s not their home. “I think there is a coordinated effort to use this address to bring voters into the DFL primary election on August 12, that’s what I think is going on,” Rice said. “It’s wrong, it violates Minnesota Law, it’s a crime.”
It was a classic kitchen-sink strategy. Unleash every possible barrage against your opponent, and see what sticks. Rice, as a political tactician, did not miss the opportunity to link the voter fraud allegations to the Noor campaign:
The Kahn campaign has reason to believe that the Noor campaign has been behind the registrations of new voters at this address…Simply stated, it appears that there is a massive voter fraud effort under way.
Rice, perhaps to instill fear in the hearts of the Somali voters who are new to the political process, invoked the felony card in his petition:
Under Minn. Stat. 204C.10 every person must affirm that that reside in the precinct for the election. It is a felony to violate this provision of law punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The Noor campaign did not come out forcefully to fend off the allegations with Obama campaign style Truth Team. Nor was there a counterpunching petition accusing Rice of voter intimidation and distortions. 204C.10 says:
An individual seeking to vote shall sign a polling place roster stating I understand that deliberately providing false information is a felony
Deliberately being the keyword here. An important legal factor which will make all the more difference. The investigators’ findings do not indicate the existence of any deliberate voter fraud.
Noor though issued a statement denying the allegations:
I categorically deny any assertion of wrongdoing on the part of my campaign, and I welcome an investigation into the baseless allegations raised by Brian Rice.
Rice thought to have stumbled on gold mine. In a closely contested election, every vote matters. Chipping away 147 votes from your opponent gives you a good head start. But as the days go by and the facts start to trickle down, Rice’s claims started to unravel. A few days later, the StarTribune ran a story about the allegations. Buried in there was this tidbit:
State records show that 419 Cedar Avenue S. has been used by some of the voters as far back as 2008
This piece of information undercut Rice’s allegation that there exist a “coordinated” voter fraud effort. On the contrary, the vast majority of these voters were registered before 2014 as would be revealed later. That’s long before anyone entertained the idea of a contested primary. This was the first bit of bad news that put a damper on Kahn camp’s short-lived gotcha moment. In the media flurries that followed, you can notice Rice slowly toning down his rhetoric. Not to mention 419 Cedar Avenue is located in Councilman Abdi Warsame’s district. Rice served as Warsame’s 2013 campaign strategist. We don’t know if these voters casted ballots during the city council elections of 2013 or for whom they voted. But Rice must have had second thoughts about digging deeper. You don’t know what you will find. Stop digging! The smirk was fading away.
But more importantly, Rice gave the GOP an opening on a silver platter. Conservatives were gloating with “I told you so” moments and renewed their perennial call for a constitutional amendment which requires voters to present a photo ID at the polls. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dems were privately expressing their annoyance to Rice and urging him to back off or soften his rhetoric. Either way, the genie was out of the bottle. In 2008, Senator Al Franken edged Sen Norm Coleman by 312 votes after a high profile recount. You could see conservatives calling for another round of Franken-Coleman recount.
Hennepin County Attorney’s Office held a community hearing on Thursday that put the story to rest. The HCAO conducted a thorough investigation and found no coordinated voter fraud. The investigators found 141 individuals registered to vote at the address in question since 2008. Only 16 of them registered in 2014 of which 14 of them were registered to vote at that address after changing their permanent address through the U.S. Postal Service. In fact a good chunk of these voters ended up at 419 Cedar Avenue by way of the National Change of Address. The state law requires automatic updating of the voter registration address whenever a registered voter files a change of address with USPS.
According to HCAO, only two individuals mailed absentee ballots using that address. The two ballots have been rejected. These two voters are still eligible to vote in the election as long as they register with the correct address.
Registrations for all 141 individuals will be cancelled. They will all get a second chance to register using the correct address of their residence and vote, however. The hearing was not about criminal proceedings.
Here is an interesting piece of information about the Minnesota law, which I bet you didn’t know, from a memorandum obtained from HCAO:
Voting in the wrong precinct is not a crime unless the voter has first been notified by the County auditor that the voter previously voted in the wrong precinct…If the voter votes in the wrong precinct again, it is a petty misdemeanor. Voting in the wrong precinct after being convicted of a petty misdemeanor is a misdemeanor.
This should calm down a lot of skittish nerves and encourage them to come out of the woodworks and exercise their voting rights. It is now incumbent upon the campaigns and the community activists to reach out to these voters and encourage them to reregister with their correct home addresses and vote in the precinct in which they reside. It is also important to educate the voters, especially the new Somali voters, about the voting system to avoid any future voting irregularities and embarrassments. It is worth noting that Rice’s charges are not without merit. Notwithstanding his over the board allegations, Rice was correct to challenge the voters registered at the address in question.
Here is the full memo issued by HCAO. The memo details the investigation findings and recommendations.