Amane Badhasso is running in Minnesota's Fourth Congressional District and could become the first Oromo elected to Congress. Credit: Amane Badhasso For Congress Campaign

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Wintana Melekin has served as a delegate at DFL conventions for more than 15 years. So she was puzzled when she received a recent text from a DFL volunteer asking if she had signed up as a delegate for a candidate vying to become the first Oromo woman elected to Congress.

Wintana soon learned that she was just one of several delegates—mostly of East African descent—at risk of losing their ability to participate in the DFL endorsement process for Amane Badhasso. Badhasso, a progressive political organizer from St. Paul, is running for office in Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District against incumbent Rep. Betty McCollum.

While the DFL took steps early this week to address the issue, the experience left some concerned that the DFL party irreparably harmed a disenfranchised voter base.

“This is a lesson that we can all learn from,” Amane said. “It’s problematic. If your last name was Johnson, you wouldn’t be dealing with any of this. We want the process to be fixed and we want the party to do better.”

Residents were allowed to sign up via online forms to participate as a potential delegate at the party’s convention from January 3–February 1. Those who are selected as delegates vote at the convention to award the DFL party’s endorsement to their candidates of choice in several different races. An endorsement unlocks campaign resources from the party, and endorsed candidates typically win their primary elections, which will be held on August 9. Winners of the primary election—one DFL candidate per race—move forward to the general election on November 8 to run against Republican challengers.

McCollum has represented the Fourth Congressional District, which includes Ramsey County and parts of Washington County, for more than 20 years. Amane has proven to be a competitive progressive challenger against McCollum in the DFL stronghold.

According to Amane’s campaign, DFL convention volunteers began texting and emailing her delegates from unknown phone numbers and addresses March 11, questioning their veracity. Many, including Wintana, were stripped of their designation by the DFL because they asked not to be bothered or didn’t respond to the queries, thinking they were spam.

“That’s just not how democracy works,” said Wintana, who is Eritrean and a longtime voting rights organizer. “If it could happen to me, who knows what’s happening to people who have less access to the system, less understanding of how it works.”

Amane’s campaign said her delegates who signed up to participate through a form on her website received messages from the Fourth Congressional District DFL office* asking them if they wanted to be delegates. Failure to respond meant a delegate could be removed as a delegate or docked to an alternate spot.

“Most of those delegates are Oromo. They left Ethiopia, and a majority of them lost family members that protested for their right to vote,” Amane said. “It’s really disheartening. We weren’t given an opportunity to, if there were issues, to address it.”

The delegates who were at risk of being removed or downgraded had signed up through forms provided by individual campaigns rather than the DFL’s official website, a process the party had authorized. According to Amane’s campaign, at least 85 people in one senate district had been removed as delegates by Monday. Exact numbers were not available, but Amane’s campaign said most of those people were her supporters; some were from McCollum’s camp. An additional 155 people who signed up through both campaigns were at risk because they did not respond to the verification texts and emails. As of Tuesday, Amane’s campaign said at least 1,000 people in the congressional district as a whole could have been removed or bumped to alternates. Amane’s campaign would have lost more than half of its delegates.

Amane’s campaign received a letter from Fourth Congressional District DFL Chair Jen Guertin on March 5 saying there were concerns about some of the delegate forms submitted through individual campaigns, and that DFL leaders would meet to discuss how to address the problems.

After an uproar on social media, DFL members met virtually March 14 to apologize. They also recommended that DFL senate districts reinstate the delegates. In a statement posted on Facebook Monday night, Guertin said she originally made the decision to verify delegates through text and email “in a response to calls for help from several campaigns and credential committees.”

“The events that have unfolded over the last week are troubling for the 4th Congressional District, our party, and our communities,” Guertin said in the statement. “We are a big tent party, welcoming any and all who express our values and wish to participate.” 

Unusual verification text

Wintana said she’s familiar with the delegate process because she has worked with other campaigns seeking DFL endorsement and was also a convention volunteer. When she received the text Friday, she thought it was spam since she had never received a verification text before. She asked the person to stop contacting her.

The sender responded that Wintana would be removed as a delegate.

“I’ve lived in St. Paul since I was 4 years old,” Wintana said. “The idea that my own neighbors, people that I’ve worked with on a ridiculous amount of bills throughout my life, attempted to suppress my vote and suppress the votes of my friends and family, is unacceptable.”

Wintana melekin

“I’ve lived in St. Paul since I was 4 years old,” Wintana said. “The idea that my own neighbors, people that I’ve worked with on a ridiculous amount of bills throughout my life, attempted to suppress my vote and suppress the votes of my friends and family, is unacceptable.”

Contacted by Sahan Journal, McCollum declined to comment on the issue and referred instead to a statement she posted on Facebook, urging all DFL delegates and alternates to attend the DFL conventions.

“We fully expect an open, transparent, and inclusive process for all delegates, alternates, and campaigns based on the DFL’s rules and constitution to ensure legitimacy,” McCollum said in the statement. “Our campaign wants to make sure every eligible DFLer is welcome to participate and help Democrats win in November.” 

In-person caucus moves online

In the DFL’s endorsement process, people come together during the precinct caucuses and select a certain number of delegates who advance to the next steps of the convention. There, they vote to endorse candidates to represent their party in congressional and statewide elections. 

Instead of an in-person caucus, this year’s interested delegates signed up via online forms on February 1. The DFL posted a form, but campaigns were also allowed to post their own form to sign up supporters as delegates. Delegates will advance to the Senate District Convention on March 26.

Wintana signed up through Amane’s campaign form. She never received a confirmation email, so just to ensure that she was registered, Wintana contacted the DFL and asked if she could submit a form through the party’s website. She said she also submitted the DFL’s form and received a confirmation email.

DFL leaders at the senate district level approved the form Amane’s campaign circulated. The party also opened up the endorsement process to non-citizens for the first time. It provided a unique opportunity for Amane, a refugee from Ethiopia, to get her community—especially Oromo supporters—involved.

“Getting folks to participate in the process was extremely tough, because they’re new to it,” Amane said. “I had to let them know: ‘It’s different, the process is going to be great.’”

According to Amane’s campaign, they saw increased turnout across the board, especially with immigrants and people of color. 

‘They don’t know you exist’

Amane said her campaign scrambled to make sure her supporters responded to the text messages and emails promptly so they could be counted. Some chose not to respond because they thought the messages were spam. Others hadn’t seen the texts or emails. Among her East African supporters, Amane heard concerns that some struggled to respond because the messages they received were only in English.

“To have to go back to them and say: ‘They don’t know you exist,’” Amane said. “It just shows that some folks in our party don’t understand a very large community here.”

The campaign emailed DFL leadership asking for an explanation, but weren’t satisfied with the response. Guertin responded by saying the virtual caucus procedures could cause verification problems. Amane’s concerns heightened as she heard more stories from delegates who received unusual calls and texts. On March 14, she called for Guertin to step down and for the DFL to reinstate delegates.

“Chair Guertin has overseen an unprecedented and unnecessary process which has diluted the representation of people of color and immigrants in the DFL caucuses,” Amane said in a news release. “The DFL has and should continue to pride itself on both its inclusion and transparency, and the actions by Chair Guertin undermine both of these fundamental principles.”

By Tuesday evening, DFL leaders met virtually to try to resolve the caucus issues. Wintana joined the call and said the attendees overwhelmingly supported reinstatement of the delegates. So far, two of 11 senate districts have pledged to reinstate delegates.  

“I see this as an opportunity to grow,” Wintana said. “We’re lucky that we have the ability to resolve this issue and not be the type of party that could have put it under the rug and left all these people to be disenfranchised.”

But when it comes to including folks typically left out of the democratic process, Amane fears the damage has been done. She hopes the work she’s done to build trust with East African voters won’t be eroded by the recent events.

*Correction: A previous version of this article identified volunteers who were contacting delegates via email and text as state DFL volunteers. They are instead volunteering with the Fourth Congressional District DFL at the local level.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.