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The FBI recently questioned several Somali American residents living in a south Minneapolis highrise about their voting methods in a 2020 special city election, according to multiple firsthand accounts provided to Sahan Journal.
Over the course of a few days in early February, an FBI agent and a Somali interpreter interviewed at least three people who are neighbors in a public housing complex with many Somali residents. Two said they were interviewed by the same agent, and one showed Sahan Journal the business card left by the agent. It belonged to Special Agent Charles Burnham, who is listed online as the “Minneapolis election crime coordinator” for the FBI.
“He was asking questions like, ‘Did you vote?’ ‘Who took you to the station?’ ‘Who helped you with the application for filling out the forms?’” said Ismail, one of the individuals who said he spoke to the FBI agent. “They never explained to us why they were asking these questions.”
The reason for the FBI’s interest in the August 2020 special election is unclear. When reached by phone, Burnham declined to comment on the interviews and referred Sahan Journal to an FBI spokesperson.
Citing FBI policy, spokesperson Michael Kulstad said his office would neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigations into voting in Minneapolis.
An online presentation attributed to Burnham details the types of suspected voter fraud that the FBI investigates. It defines voter fraud as corrupting the way voters are registered and ballots are cast. It lists “vote buying,” “intimidation,” and “aggressive assistance” as common forms of ballot fraud.
A spokesperson for Secretary of State Steve Simon said his office is not aware of the FBI questioning Minnesota voters this year.
“We know that investigations for voting crimes are really, really uncommon,” Peter Bartz-Ghallager, the spokesperson, said.
In total, five people spoke to Sahan Journal about visits from the FBI. They came forward with their accounts, they explained, after feeling shaken by the incidents. Each spoke to a pair of reporters on the condition Sahan Journal publish only a first name and not specify the apartment complex where they live. They spoke predominantly in Somali, but sometimes answered questions posed in English.
The apartment residents range from middle age to elderly. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, they detailed their accounts of the interviews while seated in a circle, inside a crowded second-floor apartment.
Speaking to Sahan Journal, the elders said the FBI questioned them over their voting process during the 2020 Minneapolis special election in Ward 6, which encompasses the neighborhoods where most of the city’s Somali community lives: Cedar-Riverside, Ventura Village, Stevens Square, and Phillips. Abdi Warsame vacated the City Council seat in 2020, and the special election to replace him featured a crowded field of 11 candidates.
Three of the people who spoke to Sahan Journal—Ismail, Anab, and Dahabo—said they were interviewed directly by the FBI. One man, Hussein, said the FBI sought an interview that he rejected. Instead, Hussein told the agent to come back with a warrant. Another woman, Kaltuum, said she was present during Anab’s interview but wasn’t interviewed herself.
In their accounts to Sahan Journal, they said they voted by requesting absentee ballots and then dropped them off before Election Day at the city’s election center. They say several cars picked them up and brought them to the election center to drop off their ballots. One of the apartment residents described receiving help from interpreters to complete her absentee ballot application.
Bartz-Gallagher emphasized that state law allows anyone to help transport voters to election centers and polling places. And he added that state law also allows anyone at an election center to assist people with the administrative tasks in the voting process.
All five said the experience with the FBI interview left them scared and intimidated, and feeling as if their voting rights were under attack. Each now described being scared to vote, and one, Dahabo, vowed to never vote again.
“We believe it’s every American’s right to vote,” Ismail said. “Voter suppression is illegal. That’s what’s happening to us, that’s the way we view it.”
‘Voting is important to me’
In this group of witnesses, Anab, an elderly Somali woman, said she was the first person to speak with the FBI. She found Burnham’s business card at her home on an early February weekday after completing her early afternoon prayers. With the help of a friend, Anab called the number on the card and scheduled an interview. Burnham subsequently came to her home and knocked on her door.
Anab said that during her FBI interview she got so nervous that she began shaking and couldn’t speak. Her friend Kaltuum, who was visiting at Anab’s apartment when the agent arrived, helped calm her down.
“I asked ‘What happened? What did she do?’” Kaltuum said. The agent, she recalled, said, “‘She didn’t do anything.’”
Anab added, “The first question they asked me was if I voted. I said yes, I voted.”
The 2020 special election was Anab’s first time voting in the United States. Burnham showed Anab an absentee ballot application from the 2020 special Minneapolis City Council election for Ward 6 and asked if the signature on it was hers. Anab said she recognized her signature and answered yes. Then, Burnham showed Anab three pictures of people, all of whom she said she didn’t recognize.
Anab couldn’t remember how long the conversation with the FBI agent lasted. After the interview, Anab, who has high blood pressure, said she had to lie down on the floor to compose herself.
“We had to give her water,” Kaltuum said.
‘I’m an FBI agent. Can I come in?’
Ismail, a neighbor of Anab’s who appeared to be in his early 40s, led most of the group discussion with Sahan Journal. He described feeling like he couldn’t turn down the FBI interview when Burnham showed up at his door.
“He didn’t show a badge, but he said, ‘I’m an FBI agent. Can I come in?’” Ismail said. “He scares you and then you cannot say no.”
Once inside Ismail’s apartment, Burnham and the interpreter asked him a similar set of questions. Burnham also showed him an exhibit of his absentee ballot application for the same 2020 special City Council election.
“I said it looked like my handwriting but I wasn’t sure,’” Ismail said.
Next, the agent showed Ismail three pictures and asked if he recognized them. Two of them Ismail did recognize: One was of Anab; another was now-Minneapolis City Council Member Jamal Osman. The agent asked Ismail if he recognized Jamal, Ismail said, which he did.
Ismail said the FBI agent never explained why he was showing Ismail the pictures.
Jamal won the 2020 special election for Ward 6 by seven percentage points in the third round of ranked-choice voting. He won reelection in 2021 by a wide margin.
Reached on Friday, Jamal Osman declined to comment for this story.
Ismail said the interview lasted about 15 minutes.
Ismail said he’s been voting regularly in elections since casting his first vote for former President Barack Obama more than a decade ago.
“Voting is important to me, because the people we vote for are the people we believe can stand up for us, can make our city better and our people better,” he said.
One man refuses to speak with FBI agent
Another Somali elder, Dahabo, said she fielded similar questions about her voting process in the 2020 special election. She told Sahan Journal that an FBI agent asked her whether she voted early, then showed her a copy of her own ID.
Next, the agent asked her to identify three photos. She could only identify one—a picture of Ismail, her neighbor.
Like Ismail, Dahabo has been voting regularly since Obama first won. But she told Sahan Journal that after this incident with the FBI agent, she won’t vote again in the future.
Hussein, an elderly man with a white beard and a kufi cap, told Sahan Journal that he refused to speak with the FBI. The exchange started when Burnham left his business card at Hussein’s home, but he wasn’t there during the time.
After Hussein returned home, he called the number on the FBI card.
“I asked them why they were looking for me,” Hussein said. “They told me, ‘We want to see you personally, can we come to you?’”
Hussein, 59, said he refused the offer, and told the FBI to visit him only if they had a search warrant.
“Did I steal something?” he recalled saying. “Did I kill someone? What did I do? They said, ‘You didn’t do anything.’ I told them, ‘This is America. We are citizens. Voting is my right.’ We talked a lot, had a lot of back and forth.”
None of the Somali elders who spoke to Sahan Journal offered an explanation for why the FBI had contacted them. None of them came away from their FBI interviews with the impression that they were personally under investigation. And none of their accounts describe violations of voting laws.
Jeff Van Nest, a former FBI agent who worked in Minneapolis from 2013 through 2021, described interviews of this sort as routine. Asking for help from the community—including from people not suspected of crimes—“is the bread and butter of what we do.”
“If someone is unsure of why we’re there and what we’re doing, they should certainly ask and understand that we’re asking for their voluntary help,” Van Nest said. “The FBI’s success really hinges on the community supporting our work.”
But an account of the interviews raised concerns for Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, executive director for Common Cause Minnesota, which advocates for election rights.
Belladonna-Carrera questioned why FBI investigators were going directly to people’s doors and showing them their ballots. Why not, for example, work jointly with the Secretary of State’s Office and invite people to an interview in an office setting, or meet with the community leaders of the apartment building?
“Democracy is not experienced the same by all Minnesotans,” Belladonna-Carrera said. “Instead of having working relationships to minimize harm, this is the unintended consequence: a U.S. immigrant citizen saying, ‘I will not vote again.’”
It’s unclear whether the FBI interviews described to Sahan Journal are connected to the election-related criminal indictment of a Minneapolis man.
In November 2021, a federal grand jury indicted Muse Mohamud Mohamed for allegedly lying under oath about his handling of three absentee ballots during an unspecified election.
In that case, Muse Mohamud Mohamed told a grand jury in October 2021 that he brought absentee ballots to voters who filled them out, and that he then dropped off the three ballots at an elections office. The federal indictment alleges that Muse did not, in fact, bring the ballots to voters.
Muse is scheduled to go to trial in May. His attorney, reached by phone, declined to comment on Muse’s case.
Additional reporting by Aala Abdullahi.