Somali voters at Brian Coyle Center: Claims, clans, controversies

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A mixture of first-time voters, translators, competing community leaders, political issues in Somalia, and clan-based allegiances in the Minnesota Somali community boiled over at the Brian Coyle Center on Election Day.

The controversy began November 5, when Omar Jamal held a press conference in which he asserted that translators were telling Somali elderly men and women to vote for Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken. Jamal, a self-proclaimed leader of the Somali community, is executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul. On Election Day, translators had told me that Mohamud Wardere, a staffer in Republican Senator Norm Coleman’s office, was influencing voters.

On November 5, KSTP reported “[Jamal] said that at the polling place set up inside the Brian Coyle Community Center in south Minneapolis, Coleman and Franken workers tried to illegally influence a ‘few dozen’ Somali voters.” On November 7, Jamal told KSTP that more than 500 elderly Somali men and women were manipulated into voting for Franken.

When speaking to TCDP/Mshale November 8, Jamal said, “there are 500…more or less…voters manipulated… .”

Jamal also said that the claims that Wardere had influenced voters were “lies told by translators. They are lying to the press.” Coleman’s office has since said that Wardere was volunteering his time as a translator at the polling place.

A few days later, Jamal released a home video, which he says proves that “people were made to vote for Coleman.” Jamal refused to release the video to TC Daily Planet/Mshale.

The voting place video

Omar Jamal’s video, which can be viewed on WCCO’s Web site, shows no evidence of voters being directed to vote for a particular candidate, but raises other serious problems.

In the first place, it is illegal to film voters without their permission. At one point on the video, someone objects to being filmed, but the camera continues.

Second, it is illegal to photograph ballots, but the video clearly shows ballots being inserted into the voting machine,

Third, the video quality is shaky, and it appears to loop at least once, repeating footage.

Fourth, the video shows an election official taking ballots out of the yellow folder that ensures ballot secrecy to insert them into the machine. The machine appears to be causing problems, with the ballot being fed back out after being inserted. Eventually, the election official standing next to the machine manages to get the machine to accept the ballots.

Omar Jamal accuses Jamal Hashi, the director of Somali Action Alliance, of improper behavior in the polling place. Somali Action Alliance is an organization that is involved in civic engagement and social justice work, including voter registration. Hashi says that community leaders worked hard to educate Somalis as new immigrants on the election process.

“We registered hundreds of voters and talked to them about issues… issues like healthcare and education,” he said in a phone interview. “It is a shame that all our hard work has been reduced to this.”

Hashi is seen speaking on his cell phone in the video provided by Omar Jamal. Hashi says that he had come to the polling station because he had received a call that his translators were being intimidated by two GOP challengers. The Minnesota Independent reported that, at one point, three GOP challengers were present at the same time. The presence of multiple GOP challengers at the polling place is problematic because a Minnesota law requires that, “Only one challenger from each major political party for each precinct shall be allowed to remain in the polling place at one time.” (Minnesota Statute 204C.07)

Translators who have listened to the video recording say that the conversation between Hashi and Amina Harun (the woman in black in the video) are inaudible. Harun was volunteering as a translator at the polling place.

Cell phone use is prohibited in polling stations. In his defense, Hashi says, “I was on the phone with Minnesota Voter Protection Hotline,” because “one of the machines was broken.” Harun, he says, was telling him that, “there were four ballots at the bottom of the broken machine.”

By press time, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office said that it is not investigating Jamal’s claims of voter irregularities at the Brian Coyle Center, as Jamal has not filed a formal complaint.

Political issues in Somalia affect voting in Minnesota

Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali population outside of Somalia. As with many other immigrant groups, Somalis are actively engaged in the politics of their home country. Large numbers of Somalis have settled in Minnesota as refugees following a decades-long civil war in Somalia. While the causes for the continued civil war in Somalia cannot be simplified in a sentence, a clan-based fight for resources has played a large part in the war.

This is where it gets complicated. Senator Norm Coleman is perceived by some in the Somali community as an ally to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was formed in 2004. There is no evidence to suggest that Coleman supports particular leadership in Somalia’s TFG. However, Coleman met with Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed at the beginning of the year, when he urged the president to work towards reconciliation with other Somali leaders. Coleman’s assertion that the transitional government is “credible” has irked those Somalis who feel that their government is run by warlords. Ahmed’s government has come under fire for its association with Ethiopia, whose presence in Somalia is seen by many as an infringement of Somali sovereignty.

Clan allegiances continue to be important for Somalis in Minnesota. These allegiances may play a part in fear of political retaliation, which was cited by five local Somali community leaders as a reaon for refusing to talk on the record about the controversy at Brian Coyle Center.

Some in the Somali community say that it is hard to believe Jamal is getting as much airtime as he is, as they do not find him a credible source on issues going on in their community. Some feel that Jamal, who is related to President Ahmed, supports Coleman for this reason.

Like other Minnesotans, Somali and other African immigrant voters listen to the opinions of their parents and their children, their nieces and nephews and their brothers and sisters and neighbors, as well as political campaigners. Somali voters at Brian Coyle and elsewhere are not single-issue voters, and do not automatically follow anyone’s instructions on voting.

Madin Dula, an Oromo immigrant who lived in Kenya, and still has relatives living in Northern Kenya, was one of the enthusiastic immigrant voters at Brian Coyle. On election day, outside the Brian Coyle Center, I chatted with Dula. She said she woke up on election day to a phone call from her brother, who wanted to know if she had already cast her vote. It was only 6 a.m. and her polling station was not opened, but she assured her family that she would be one of the first ones on the lines. She lives in St. Paul, but was in the Riverside/Cedar area to make sure that all her friends and extended family made it to the polls.

Another woman sitting outside the polling place was Saman Yusuf. Yusuf fled Somalia more than 16 years ago. She said she has voted for the Democrats for as long as she has been in the United States. She was part of the majority of people voting at the Brian Coyle Center. The final vote totals from Ward 2, Precinct 10, reported by the Secretary of State’s office, was 938 for Barack Obama and 122 for John McCain, 854 for Al Franken and 161 for Norm Coleman. [Ward and precinct number corrected, 11/19/08]

Many Minnesota Somalis interviewed for this article are outraged at the portrayal of their community in this recent debacle. Immigrants from Somalia and from other African countries care deeply about their citizenship in the United States and value their right to vote. They would like to see media attention focus on positive aspects of their community, including their civic participation.

Nekessa Opoti is the publisher of kenyaimagine.com, a Kenyan online magazine and newspaper and also writes for Mshale, a Minnesota-based African community newspaper.