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Change of address forms may have sparked Minneapolis voting controversy

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About 140 voters are registered at this address
A white door to 419 Cedar Ave. S. in Minneapolis easily escapes notice in the heart of the West Bank. About 140 voters are registered at the address, which is home to a private mailbox center in the basement.
Laura Yuen/MPR News

A chill ran through Amino Abdi when she first received an official letter informing her that someone had challenged her eligibility to vote in this year's elections.

• Related: Hennepin County elections officials to discuss voter registration controversy

The letter last week came from the Hennepin County Auditor's office, which is holding a hearing Thursday afternoon on a complaint which cited records showing that more than 140 people registered to vote using the same mailbox center address.

"For a second, I thought that I was going to be in trouble," Abdi said. "I thought I broke the law, and I thought I was going to get arrested."

Abdi readily admits she doesn't live at 419 Cedar Ave. S., where the private mailbox center is located. The 28-year-old daycare worker been moving around lately and rents a mailbox because it's easier to collect mail in a single location.

141 Voters registered over seven years
Hennepin County Attorney's office is investigating whether folks were improperly registered at private mailbox center.
MPR News Graphic

The complaint, which comes in the midst of a heated DFL primary contest, has spurred allegations of voter fraud and an investigation by the Hennepin County Attorney. But there may be less to the controversy than meets the eye.

At the hearing, voters, the vast majority Somali-American, will have an opportunity to argue they reside at 419 Cedar Ave. S. The Cedar-Riverside address is home to a basement-level mall with a barbershop and a business that rents out mailboxes.

Abdi has voted only once in her life, in the 2012 presidential election. She's barely plugged in to the knock-down, drag-out DFL primary race between Somali-American community advocate Mahmoud Noor and longtime state Rep. Phyllis Kahn. 

Abdi is one of four people interviewed by MPR News who all said the same thing: While they at one point used the Cedar-Riverside address to pick up their mail, they never declared that address as their place of residence when registering to vote, even though state records indicate otherwise.

But in Abdi's case, at least, there is a likely explanation.

Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said when someone changes his or her address through the postal service, an obscure state law requires the county auditor to update the person's address in the voter records.

"And the idea behind that is, usually when you change your permanent address at the post office, it's because you've moved," Gelms said. "It's supposed to be a convenience for people. You thought to change your address at the post office, but not necessarily your voter registration."

But the system automatically updated the voter addresses of people like Abdi, who a few months ago redirected all her mail to the Cedar Avenue mailbox without ever intending that to affect her voter registration. The statute has similar requirements for people whose mail is returned to elections officials with a forwarding address. 

Election officials do follow up with a postcard, but not everyone reads it, and the postcards are in English, which might escape the attention of people who haven't mastered the language.

Hennepin County elections officials stress that Thursday's hearing is not a criminal proceeding. But Abdi wants to clear the air. She plans to attend, "and tell them, 'I had nothing to do with it. And please, no charges.'"

As of Wednesday afternoon, elections manager Gelms was still sorting through the voter records to find out how typical the change-of-address scenario was among the 140 or so cases. 

"Was this kind of a bunch of mistakes -- people mistakenly got registered at this address? That is, I think, one possibility that the data could point to," she said.

Noor, the candidate for state representative, said there may be some people who erroneously registered at the mailbox address, such as truck drivers. But he said suggestions from the Kahn campaign that Noor's camp had anything to do with it is not true.

It's up to county prosecutors to determine if anyone deliberately registered at the wrong address. 

On the first day of absentee voting, Kahn's attorney filed a petition arguing there might be "a massive attempt to violate Minnesota election laws." The attorney, Brian Rice, said that Kahn supporters told him that people from outside of the district were using the address to vote in the Aug. 12 primary.

Rice alleged that 149 people registered to vote at the mailbox-center address this year alone. But he now admits to misinterpreting the data. Only 16 voters have registered this year with that address. In fact, the state records show about twice as many registered last year, when Abdi Warsame, whom Rice advised, won a seat to the Minneapolis City Council. 

But Rice stands by his decision to report the irregularities, saying the integrity of the election was at stake.

"People can't vote out of mailboxes," he said. "One voter voting at an improper address is one too many."

Rice said if anyone was intending to vote with the 419 Cedar address in next month's primary, his complaint will have stopped that. Elections officials say they'll no longer accept voter registrations associated with the address.