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Allegations of voter fraud in Minneapolis took right-wing media by storm Sunday night. They stem from a report by Project Veritas, a video sting operation led by Republican provocateur James O’Keefe.
Project Veritas’ latest stunt exposé accuses Ilhan Omar’s campaign of “ballot harvesting”: a mail-in ballot practice—often legal—that occurs when a third party collects election ballots from voters and submits them to election judges. Various anonymous sources describe collecting ballots from elders in the local Somali community during August’s primary election.
The report, which is clouded with muddled and unsubstantiated information, shows a video of a man—apparently the brother of a city councilmember—claiming to hold 300 harvested ballots in his car. Omar Jamal, a longtime Somali community activist with a questionable reputation, alleges without evidence that Representative Ilhan Omar’s campaign participated in the harvesting operation.
The report comes in the midst of a steady and deceptive campaign from President Donald J. Trump to undermine mail-in voting. It followed an explosive New York Times investigative report on Trump’s tax returns.
Confused? You’re not alone. Below, Sahan Journal breaks down the latest controversy, which received five enthusiastic retweets on Sunday from Trump’s Twitter account.
What is Project Veritas? And who is James O’Keefe?
Project Veritas is a “right-wing disinformation outfit,” according to media researchers at Harvard University. It’s known for its sting operations, entrapment tactics, and deceptively edited videos. James O’Keefe is the group’s provocateur leader. In the early years of the Obama administration, O’Keefe became a conservative darling after he released viral and misleading videos about community organizing group ACORN and Planned Parenthood.
What accusations have been leveled against his methods?
Veritas and O’Keefe often go undercover—itself a widely discredited journalistic tactic—and try to pressure people to behave in certain ways that will make them look bad when they are later exposed on camera.
ACORN folded in the wake of O’Keefe’s sting videos, but the California attorney general concluded that the videos significantly distorted what happened. Shortly afterward, O’Keefe was charged with a felony for attempting to tamper with the phones of then–Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, in an attempted video sting.
In 2014, Colorado Democrats said they’d caught O’Keefe, in the guise of a college student with a different name, trying to bait them into voter fraud.
And in 2017, Project Veritas famously failed to execute a sting operation against the Washington Post with false sexual-assault allegations against then–Senate candidate Roy Moore. (Several women had raised real claims against Moore for sexually pursuing teenage girls.)
Why is Project Veritas in the news again?
Sunday night, Project Veritas posted a new video sting, focusing on the recent Minneapolis primary election. For the past year, the group has been executing stings across the country to undermine the credibility of mail-in voting. The operation’s purpose, according to a source close with Project Veritas who spoke to The New Republic, is “literally to get Trump reelected.”
What do we actually see in the video?
Honestly, it’s kind of hard to follow. Like many Project Veritas videos, it’s edited in a choppy manner with narration that attempts to knit together a coherent story. Here’s what’s on screen.
The video opens with O’Keefe from Project Veritas “at the scene of the crime,” he says, on a rooftop in front of the Cedar–Riverside apartments. O’Keefe then introduces a man he says is Liban Mohamed. O’Keefe says Liban recorded himself on Snapchat “bragging about all the illegal ballot harvesting that he does.”
It’s not clear, however, if that’s what the video actually shows.
“Money is everything,” Liban Mohamed says in his Snapchat clip. “Money is the king in this world. If you got no money, you should not be here, period. You know what I am saying? Money is everything and a campaign is managed by money.”
In another Snapchat video, Liban Mohamed flashes a stack of envelopes with the caption: “Two in the morning still working and collecting absentee ballots.”
The video then transitions to a recorded interview with Omar Jamal, a so-called “insider” with the Somali Watchdog Group.
Omar Jamal says of Liban Mohamed, “I think he was both with Ilhan Omar and Jamal [Osman], but I think he was more with Ilhan Omar.”
Based on recorded phone conversations he says he had with Liban Mohamed, Omar Jamal claims that the ballot harvesters baited elderly residents for their absentee ballots.
A bit later, an anonymous source says (in Somali) that campaign workers for Ilhan Omar were filling out the ballots. The source’s face is blurred out of the video; Project Veritas asserts this is a “ballot harvester.”
Through a translator, the blurred source says, “They came to us, to our apartments. They say, this year, you will vote for Ilhan.”
In a poorly framed video interview, we catch glimpses of “Jamal,” an alleged DFL member, talking to a Project Veritas journalist about the Snapchat videos. “They fight you if you speak up,” Jamal says. No one establishes any connection between “Jamal” and the DFL.
Another anonymous source outside of the Horn Towers apartments says, “They took every ballot,” from the seniors living in the complex’s three buildings.
This last anonymous source claims harvesters were carrying around bags of money. In the video, the source says harvesters gave people money for ballots.
Again though, with all the anonymous sources and vague allegations, even people sympathetic to O’Keefe’s conspiracy theory may have trouble following the plotline.
A second Project Veritas video that Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted out Monday night purports to show a “ballot harvester” paying a voter $200 in exchange for a vote. The video does not, in fact, clearly show any exchange of money.
What it does show is someone explaining, in Somali, how to fill out a voter registration form. This practice is entirely legal.
Who is Omar Jamal?
In the Project Veritas video, Omar Jamal alleges that Ilhan’s office is involved in voter fraud.
Omar Jamal has a history of making provocative and unsubstantiated allegations in the media, dating back more than a decade. In 2009, while the FBI investigated whether missing Somali teenagers had joined terrorists abroad, Omar Jamal went on several national TV programs to state that al-Qaeda cells were actively operating in the Twin Cities.
He also participated in a panel organized by Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher about a controversial training program on stopping terrorism. At the time, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations denounced the panel. And it expressed doubts about Omar Jamal, pointing to allegations that he lied to immigration officials in the early 2000s.
Today, Omar Jamal works as a civilian employee at the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. Though not an officer of the law, he often collaborates with Sheriff Fletcher.
In a prepared statement, Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Roy Magnuson said that Omar Jamal was not acting as an employee of the office when he made the voting fraud allegations. “Any direct implication would be a violation of department policies,” Magnuson said.
The Project Veritas report also lists Omar Jamal as chair of the Somali Watchdog Group, a limited liability company formed in 2017.
Never heard of it. What’s the Somali Watchdog Group?
So far, little is known about this outfit.
Earlier this month, the group apparently hosted a “Rally for Law and Order” in front of the Governor’s Mansion, calling for the resignation of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo.
According to the Daily Dot, a news site that writes about online culture, the Somali Watchdog Group is a nonexistent organization. It only registered its website in August 2020—after production of the O’Keefe video began. It’s not clear whether the organization counts any members besides Omar Jamal.
Was Omar Jamal paid for his participation in this video?
On Monday, Omar Jamal set up a GoFundMe account with a $500,000 goal to “expose vote by mail and election fraud.”
“I look forward to your support in this upcoming election and to further expose potentially more election fraud come November,” his page reads. As of 11 p.m. Central time, Omar had raised more than $19,000.
Does Omar Jamal have any history with Representative Ilhan Omar or other Democrats?
Omar Jamal has also previously criticized conduct at the polls, alleging in 2008 that translators were telling Somali voters to vote for Al Franken. (Omar Jamal was reportedly a supporter of Norm Coleman.)
OK, let’s get back to voting. The video makes it seem like hundreds of ballots are just sitting around for anyone to use as they please. How, according to the secretary of state’s office, does the mail-in ballot process actually work?
If you’ve already requested a mail-in ballot or voted by mail, you may be familiar with the process. You fill out a form—online or through the mail—with personal identifying information. That would include your name, birthdate, address, and driver’s license number and/or the last four digits of your social security number.
When you fill out the ballot, you place it in a privacy envelope. Then, you place it in a signature envelope, where you write the same personal identifying information that went on your request. Then you seal that envelope in a mailing envelope, and mail it to your local elections office.*
A part of the process voters don’t see is what happens once their ballot arrives in the elections office. An absentee ballot board, composed of election judges or county elections staff, reviews each ballot to make sure the envelope is signed. The board confirms identifying characteristics like name, address, and ID number. And it verifies that the voter is eligible and registered to vote in that precinct, and that they have not already voted in person.
“There are a bunch of different checkpoints,” said Risikat Adesaogun, press secretary for Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. “So it’s just not accurate to characterize it as a free-for-all with ballots.”
Is voting by mail secure?
According to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office—and extensive research from numerous scholars—the answer is yes.
“A lot of people think of election security as a one-day affair, just something that happens on Election Day,” Adesaogun said. “But in fact we have security measures in place well before even the absentee period starts, well before Election Day. And we also have security measures after Election Day to verify that things went as they should.”
Though it’s become a popular talking point for the president and his party, voter fraud is extremely rare. There is just no evidence of widespread voter fraud, in-person or through mail-in ballots. You can review the research here if you want to know more about it.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s office said in a statement that the office takes all election-related allegations seriously and that after every state election, the office typically files charges in about a dozen cases, mostly related to people with felony convictions voting before their voting rights have been restored.
The secretary of state’s office works with local jurisdictions, law enforcement, and the intelligence community, to ensure election security, Adesaogun said. “Election security is a team sport,” she said.
If someone does have concerns about any irregularities, she added, they should contact their local county attorney’s office without delay.
In the video we see a man apparently named Liban Mohamed driving around with white envelopes saying “money is everything” in a car filled with envelopes he alleges are absentee ballots. Who is this man?
Liban Mohamed is allegedly responsible for collecting ballots from elderly residents of Ward 6. Wade Buckley, Jamal Osman’s campaign manager, confirmed with the Star Tribune that Liban is Jamal Osman’s brother. But he said that he never heard of any efforts to force or pay residents to vote for Jamal Osman.
The video from Project Veritas alleges that Liban collected ballots to help Jamal Osman win the Ward 6 city council election. Snapchat videos from Liban Mohamed posted in July show him in a car with envelopes. In the video, Liban Mohamed says, “You can see my car is full. All these here are absentee ballots. Can’t you see? Look at all these, my car is full. All these are for Jamal Osman.”
What we don’t see is whether the envelopes contain fraudulent ballots.
Who is Jamal Osman? What does the video allege he did? And what does he have to say about the allegations?
Newly elected city council member Jamal Osman represents Ward 6 in Minneapolis, which includes the Seward, Cedar–Riverside, Philips West, Elliot Park, Stevens Square, and Ventura Village neighborhoods.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Jamal Osman said he condemned the allegations: “Throughout my campaign, I let my staff, volunteers and supporters know my values including the type of race I wanted to run. I stated publicly the importance to run a positive and ethical campaign. I condemn behavior that contradicts these values. That is why I also condemn the continued attacks on the integrity of the East-African immigrant community in Minneapolis.”
Eleven candidates ran for the vacant city council seat in perhaps the most crowded election this year. Rule changes related to COVID-19 delayed the results, in order to accommodate late arrivals for mail-in ballots. After three days, election officials finally announced Jamal Osman as the winner with 36.08 percent of the votes.
What is “ballot harvesting”? Is it illegal?
“Ballot harvesting”—also known as “ballot collection” or “voter assistance”—means that instead of mailing your vote directly, you give it to another individual to turn in. Supporters of the practice say it expands access to voting, especially for seniors, people with disabilities, and people with low literacy skills or English proficiency.
Under Minnesota law, an individual can return up to three ballots for additional voters. The person returning those ballots must show ID, sign a log, and provide personal information for the voters.
But on July 28, two weeks before the August primary, a district court struck down the three-ballot limit. That meant there was no limit to the number of ballots an individual could return—though they still had to go through the process of showing their ID, signing a log, and providing personal information for all the voters. On September 4, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision and reinstated the three-person limit.
One of the Snapchat videos appears to be dated July 2. Still, there was a period of time around the August primary when Minnesota had no legal limit on ballot collection.
Is “ballot harvesting” a Minnesota thing?
Many states allow this form of ballot collection. For example, the practice is also legal in Florida. In fact, it’s how President Trump cast his own vote in the August primary.
What is vouching? How does it relate to voting?
When you register to vote in Minnesota, you need to demonstrate you live in the precinct. You can do that by showing proof of address, such as a state identification card, a lease, or a utility bill with your address. Or you can have a neighbor vouch for you. This is particularly useful for some highly mobile or unhoused people.
In the video, James O’Keefe, who is not from Minnesota, calls vouching a new and shady process. He questions that one voter could vouch for eight people.
In fact, any Minnesota voter can vouch for up to eight other voters. It is just part of how Minnesota does democracy.
“We haven’t had any significant issues in Minnesota with vouching,” Adesaogun said.
What does law enforcement say?
The Hennepin County Attorney’s office said they had received no information of “so-called ballot harvesting” in any elections held in the county this year. One individual, who identified herself as “Megan,” called to express concerns about ballot harvesting. The office recommended she report her concerns to local law enforcement.
“If Project Veritas has evidence of election law violations, they should provide it to the Minneapolis Police Department,” the Hennepin County Attorney’s office said in a statement.
The Minneapolis Police Department issued a statement via Twitter.
So just to review the Project Veritas segment for a second. What is the evidence of wrongdoing? And what does any of this have to do with Representative Ilhan Omar?
It’s safe to say that there isn’t any solid evidence of wrongdoing. Project Veritas’ report presents only the word of a few sources, most of whom are anonymous, and a few videos from Snapchat, none of which clearly show fraudulent ballots.
The connection to Representative Ilhan Omar appears just as scant. One anonymous source says ballot harvesters bought absentee ballots with money from Ali Isse Gainey, who worked on Ilhan’s campaign. But no other evidence shows up in the video that would confirm this.
What does Ilhan say?
“The amount of truth to this story is equal to the amount Donald Trump paid in taxes in 10 out of the last 15 years: zero,” said Jeremy Slevin, a senior advisor to Ilhan for Congress. “And amplifying a coordinated right-wing campaign to delegitimize a free and fair election this fall undermines our democracy.”
Why is Donald J. Trump tweeting this story?
Trump, who is trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden in the polls, has been repeatedly trying to undermine faith in the election to preemptively sow doubt about the results. This strategy might prove useful if he loses or if the results aren’t clear right away.
“I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said last week when reporters asked him if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “Get rid of the ballots….there won’t be a transfer, frankly.”
Targeting voting procedures is central to Trump’s reelection strategy. The Republican National Committee plans to spend up to $20 million on litigation this year, fighting efforts to make voting easier in key states, amid the pandemic.
Now, a video from a known disinformation provocateur in the district of Trump’s favorite nemesis, Representative Ilhan Omar, attempts to make tangible the fears Trump is stoking.
The video also dropped around the same time that the New York Times published a bombshell investigation showing that Trump has paid almost no taxes in the last 15 years and personally owes more $300 million on his money-losing properties and businesses.
What is the Trump campaign and right-wing media doing with this story?
They are tweeting it, discussing it, and sharing it widely. The goal? Seemingly to convince voters that electoral fraud is widespread and that the Somali community in particular is not to be trusted.
“The days of calling voter fraud a “myth” are officially over,” tweeted Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and honorary chair of Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign in Minnesota. (He’s also a likely 2022 gubernatorial candidate.)
How have state Republicans responded?
Representative Mary Franson (R-Alexandria) called for the state to stop mailing out ballots and for the state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, to investigate.
Former Representative Matt Dean* (R-Dellwood), a Republican, suggested on Twitter that both Representative Raymond Dehn and Senator Jeff Hayden lost their primaries unjustly. Dehn’s district does not include any geographic areas described in the video. The Project Veritas video did not allege wrongdoing against these two primary winners, who are both from African immigrant families.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has called for an investigation. Paul Gazelka, the Senate Majority leader, tweeted, “They will try anything to prevent Trump winning Minnesota. It won’t work.”
*Editor’s note: The wording has been changed to reflect the correct usage of the privacy and signature envelopes. This story has also been updated to clarify that Matt Dean is a former Republican member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.