Somali voter influence claims raise more questions than answers

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Last night Omar Jamal, head of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, told KSTP news that as many as 500 people were either persuaded or misled to vote for Al Franken at the Brian Coyle Center on Tuesday. As the Minnesota Independent reported on Tuesday, witnesses at the Brian Coyle Center told me and another reporter on site, Julia Nekessa Opoti, who writes for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and Mshale, a local African community newspaper, that voters were being persuaded to vote for Norm Coleman. What’s more, a Coleman staffer named Mahamoud Wardere was on hand throughout most of the day acting as at one point a GOP challenger and at another a translator.

As reported earlier, Wardere, who admitted he was uncertain of his role, was asked to leave the gymnasium where votes were being cast. Instead, he remained on site talking to voters in the foyer, at the entrance, and in a room adjacent to the gymnasium. He repeatedly claimed he was not working for Coleman, and he was on “vacation” that day. Yet Friday night’s KSTP report says that, “after people started complaining about Franken supporters, calls were made to the Coleman campaign. At which time a Coleman campaign worker allegedly showed up at the polling place.”

This begs the question: Why was Norm Coleman’s campaign contacted if there were alleged problems with voter persuasion? Who contacted them, instead of an election judge or the Secretary of State’s office, to investigate? And what exactly was Wardere’s role at the Center if he was working as a translator and for Norm Coleman, as the KSTP report alleges? He repeatedly told MnIndy that he was not working for Coleman and, in fact, refused to reveal his name until I confronted him after learning it.

The KSTP report also raises serious questions about the number of voters who were persuaded to vote for Franken. Jamal tells KSTP that as many as 500 people who could have been led to vote for Franken. Yet Jamal told the same station only two days ago that complaints were coming from voters who say that translators were persuading people to vote for Franken and Coleman. He claimed that Franken and Coleman workers were, according to KSTP, trying to illegally influence a “few dozen” Somali voters. Suddenly that number has leapt to 500, and Jamal now says they were all persuaded by translators to vote for Franken.

The Brian Coyle Center is in the 2nd Ward, Precinct 10, and according to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, the voter tallies are as follows: Obama 938, McCain 122; Franken 854, Coleman 161. There were 39 “ticket splitters” for Coleman, not a stunning anomaly, yet Jamal is claiming as many as 500 of those votes for Franken were possible persuasions. What’s more, because of Jamal’s new claims, SoS Mark Ritchie has said he will “hold off” on counting those votes until after an investigation by the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. Any dismissal of the votes will no doubt favor Coleman.

Opoti made a call to Jamal this afternoon to verify his claim and ensure that KSTP had reported the number correctly. She says Jamal told her that “more or less than 500 voters” were persuaded by translators to vote for Franken. She asked Jamal about the witnesses who told her and MnIndy that translators on site were pressuring people to vote for Coleman. Opoti says Jamal has now dismissed those complaints. “There is no evidence of that,” he told her. “Those people were lying.”

Opoti, a Kenyan immigrant, says the outright dismissal of the claims she encountered firsthand is infuriating. “It doesn’t matter who wins, Franken or Coleman. What matters is that these people were being disenfranchised. I talked to so many people who were so excited to vote, to be a part of this democracy. Their votes should count. It disgusts me that it’s come to this.”