Serious allegations continue to fly in the state House primary race between veteran Rep. Phyllis Kahn and her challenger, Mohamud Noor, as each candidate now focuses on Minnesota’s new no-excuses absentee balloting law to drum up support before the Aug. 12 primary election.
Kahn has regularly sailed to re-election over the course of her four decades-plus in the House. But she’s facing a tough primary challenger in Noor, who has the backing of many Somali voters in House District 60B, and who is also courting the student vote and other blocs. Noor managed to block Kahn’s endorsement at the Senate District convention in early April, and the primary fight has been the highest-profile DFL House race this cycle.
The easing of restrictions on absentee balloting makes it a more viable strategy for campaigns to pursue as a source of votes in the bank before the primary. Roughly 420 people voted at City Hall on Friday, the first day of Minnesota’s new absentee voting law, which is hundreds more than on opening day in 2013.
And that same day, Kahn campaign attorney Brian Rice filed a petition with Hennepin County calling into question the voter registrations of about 140 people at a single address in the Minneapolis district. Hennepin County officials are preparing to perform an inquiry based on allegations in the petition.
According to the document, which provides a list of people who have registered their residence as 419 Cedar Avenue South in Minneapolis, that address is a mailbox facility. Apartments above the building that make up multiple addresses don’t contain any of the same names in their registry as those who are registered to vote at the address. It is illegal under Minnesota law for voters to cast a ballot outside of the districts they live in, and a voter registration must include a person’s place of residence as the listed address.
“People have to be registered where they live, and you can’t live in a mailbox,” Rice said in an interview with Capitol Report. “You can’t register out of a mailbox and vote in Minnesota.”
Noor organizes caravan
Both campaigns are taking the tough race seriously, and both see the no-excuse absentee balloting measure passed by this year’s Legislature as a key tool for securing victory in the contentious primary.
Minneapolis City Hall, where voters can go to cast an absentee ballot, was packed with Somali voters on Friday, when the balloting period opened. Though Somali voters are supporting both candidates — Kahn has the key backing of Minneapolis City Councilman Abdi Warsame — Noor has concentrated on immigrants as a key base of support in the race. In the heavily Somali Seward neighborhood precinct caucuses in February, for example, Noor secured almost every delegate. He also claimed a majority of delegates in a later Cedar-Riverside neighborhood caucus.
On Friday, Noor had volunteers and school buses bringing voters to City Hall from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which has a heavy concentration of Somali-Americans. There are 22,000 eligible voters in the district, according to an analysis from the Noor campaign, and about 5,700 are likely voters.
“It’s important because it gives people the option and the opportunity to vote early so that they don’t have to hustle and deal with all of the hassles at the end of the election,” Noor said in a Monday interview.
Kahn also said her campaign is focusing on getting supporters to the polls early. Kahn herself voted on Friday at City Hall, saying that her husband and Sen. Kari Dziedzic, a supporter, had both broken their legs. She thought it would be best to “get that out of the way,” Kahn said. “The emphasis has changed because now you don’t have to make up a reason or think that you might be away,” she added, referring to the updated law.
“It’s an ability to bank votes, and then you’re tracking who’s voted and who hasn’t and then you can continue to narrow in on a narrower and narrower group of people,” a DFL activist who was familiar with the race told Capitol Report. “You can focus on the other people.”
Kahn faced a primary challenge in 2000 from Brian Biele, eventually beating him with 68 percent of the vote. The turnout in that election was 3,425 voters.
This isn’t the first time that an incident has marred the race. On precinct caucus night in February, for example, a woman who would later announce her support for Noor was beaten and later treated for a concussion. Allegations of bullying and other threats have followed the race since the beginning.
Rice said he heard rumors from Kahn supporters last Thursday evening that people were using the building in question as an address to vote in the primary election, and that those people supported Noor.
A longtime Kahn backer, Rice then went to the address early Friday morning and had trouble identifying where 419 Cedar Avenue South was located. A later KSTP report showed that address was the home to Cedar Mailbox Center, where no people live.
“The Kahn campaign has reason to believe that the Noor campaign has been behind the registrations of new voters at this address,” Rice wrote in the petition. “Simply stated, it appears that there is a massive voter fraud effort underway.”
Ginny Gelms, elections manager at Hennepin County, said Rice’s petition fell under her office’s jurisdiction. (The petition seeks to check whether the individuals Rice listed are eligible to vote, and is not a complaint against the Noor campaign.)
“I don’t care if there’s Kahn supporters voting out of there,” Rice said. “This just mucks up the election.”
Gelms said her office would be looking into the issue and should have a response ready soon. The last time such a petition was filed appears to be 2006. “These petitions are not particularly commonly made,” she added.
DFL Party chair Ken Martin said he had no comment on the matter, and said he was bound by party rules to avoid any direct role in the primary, even as a peacemaker.
“Our hands are off of this completely,” Martin said. ‘If we would have made an endorsement of either of the candidates, then we could get involved. But because there was no endorsement, the DFL Party constitution prohibits us from getting involved either way.”
Noor said he welcomes the investigation and said he opposes any wrongdoing on the part of voters, though his camp noted that confusion could be behind any irregularities, not malicious fraud. He also said Kahn’s campaign needs more facts before tying any sort of alleged fraud to his supporters — his campaign hasn’t done any voter drives, he said — and criticized Rice for what he termed “voter intimidation.”
“The voters that he’s talking about, they’re minority voters. They’re black voters,” Noor said. “To me this is the Republican tactics playing in the politics of Democrats. The Republicans used the same statements when they wanted to disenfranchise minority voters. For a Democrat to go on record to do that, I think that somehow speaks for itself.”