Voters pose next to a car decorated with a sign showing support for Jamal Osman, who unofficially holds the lead for the Ward 6 race on Tuesday night. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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As soon as 11 candidates entered the race for the vacant Ward 6 seat in Minneapolis, voters realized they’d be getting an Election Day adventure. On Tuesday, it became apparent that the excitement would continue. A giant field of candidates, ranked-choice voting and COVID-19 rule changes meant that Ward 6 would have to hang on to find out who its next city council member would be. 

That is, until Friday morning, when election officials announced the winner: Jamal Osman, who claimed 36.08 percent of the final round of votes. 

As a Somali refugee who spent time in public housing after arriving in Minnesota, Jamal went on to work 15 years with the nonprofit CommonBond Communities. There, he advocated for providing access to affordable housing, along with a full range of resident services, such as youth mentorship programs and career services.

AJ Awed, an attorney running as a Democratic Socialist, trailed with 29.51 percent of the final round of votes. 

Results for the race weren’t immediately announced Tuesday as election officials waited to receive and process all the mail-in ballots.

“To wait for that result and not be able to campaign or do anything and just wait, it’s going to be daunting” said Saciido Shaie, a Ward 6 candidate and nonprofit advocate for Somali youth.

Election night results for this race were limited since not all ballots were submitted yet. Changes in Minnesota’s election rules during the coronavirus pandemic led to a two-day extension for voters to get in their ballots. 

The overall vote count for this race was revised Wednesday and Thursday night as more ballots come in, according to the Minneapolis Elections Office. Then, ranked-choice voting tabulation occurred Friday morning. In this particular race, voters ranked three candidates in order of preference. The elections office posted the results on Twitter.

It took some work for voters just to read all the names on the ballot for the Ward 6 city council: AJ Awed, Abdirizak Bihi, Michael P. Dougherty, Sara Mae Engberg, AK Hassan, Nebiha Mohammed, Suud Olat, Jamal Osman, Alex Palacios, Joshua Scheunemann and Saciido Shaie.

The seat opened up in March, after former councilman Abdi Warsame resigned to become executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. The winner of Ward 6, the city’s smallest and most densely populated district, will hold the seat until all city council positions come up for reelection November 2021. 

Warsame’s departure set off a tense and crowded race between almost a dozen ambitious candidates, during a time when Ward 6 representation perhaps reached its most urgent demand. 

Residents of Ward 6 neighborhoods—including Seward, Cedar–Riverside, Philips West, Elliot Park, Stevens Square, and Ventura Village—lacked a city councilperson during the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the debate over dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department. Fires and looting damaged the area’s businesses. On top of that, most of the neighborhoods in the Sixth Ward report some of the state’s highest concentrations of COVID-19 cases. 

“Never in our history have we had a pandemic, then civil unrest, all within a time of a special election,” said Ward 6 candidate Nebiha Mohammed, who works as a program manager at a home health care agency. “We’re all trying to figure out ways that we can still campaign, still get our message out there, while maintaining social distancing and grappling with the fact that the dynamic of our city has changed.”

When he’s not running for the Ward 6 office, Suud Olat is an organizer for the ONE Campaign, a global initiative to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. He’s hopeful that democracy will work out in his favor.

“I spent 22 years of my life in a refugee camp and I’ve never seen democracy back home,” Suud said of his time growing up in Kenya. “I want to be a good example for imagining democracy so that people will learn about a peaceful power transfer.”

Campaigning during coronavirus

The Ward 6 race has been particularly lively in the last few cycles. Unsurprisingly, this year’s special election for the Ward 6 seat proved no exception. As the first Somali American city council member in the United States, Warsame had held on to the Ward 6 seat since first winning election in 2013. 

In 2017, Mohamud Noor decided to run against Abdi, pitting two prominent leaders in the Somali American community against each other. (Noor went on to represent District 60B in the state Legislature.) 

The field of candidates vying to replace the six-year council member features a mix of political newcomers and longtime local leaders.

A majority of the candidates support dismantling the Minnesota Police Department in one of the most important debates of the race. The Minneapolis City Council approved a proposal to dismantle the city’s police department in June, one month after the police killing of George Floyd. Ward 6, however, did not have any representation in this historic vote. 

Following the aftermath of George Floyd, homeless encampments in city parks have popped up throughout Ward 6. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has unsettled people’s housing, making this a major concern for the Ward 6 candidates. Suud said the city council should create a tenants’ bill of rights to protect renters facing eviction. 

“I fled from homelessness,” Suud said. “So when I saw all these things here in Minneapolis, it was reminiscent of what I’ve seen back home.” 

AK Hassan, by contrast, advocates for a greater investment in public housing. “Public housing is a huge asset in the Sixth Ward,” said AK, who’s presently a park board commissioner. “One that the incoming council member will have to advocate for in a strong and intentional way.”

Not every moment in race has focused as seriously on policy. During the campaign, a Fox 9 report sparked debate about the residency of some of the candidates running to represent Ward 6. According to state law, a candidate must live in a ward one month before the election. But when candidates file their paperwork, the city doesn’t verify or require proof of residency.

Candidate Abdirizak Bihi has lived in Ward 6 for 24 years. He raised concerns that candidates might have moved to the area solely to run for the vacant seat.

“All my kids were born here, and me and my family live in the high rises of Cedar–Riverside,” Abdirizak said. “I know the challenges that are out there. I know what challenges are happening in Stevens Square. I know what challenges are happening in Seward, Phillips West, also in Elliot Park.” 

Running for office during a pandemic

It’s hard to imagine a special election for a vacant city council seat in the city’s smallest district as a case study in the adaptability of democracy. But complications resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic put the candidates to the test. 

To start, candidates like AK halted door-to-door campaigning—a strategy local candidates often rely on to increase name recognition in the community. Instead, he turned to phone banking. 

“We’ve been busy campaigning, but with COVID-19 it’s been hard to reach people,” AK said. “With making calls, we’re hopeful.”

Saciido, founder of the Somali advocacy group the Ummah Project, also said she “didn’t leave any stone unturned,” while campaigning in a pandemic. She depended on her social media presence to reach voters.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a surge of absentee ballot requests in Minnesota. As of Election Day, the Minneapolis Election Office had already received over 71,000 votes by mail or through in-person early voting. In comparison, the office received a total of just 35,227 votes in the August primary back in 2016.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he’s concerned about national reports of postal delays. But in Minnesota, things seem to be going okay. He said the state is also sending PPE to thousands of polling precincts statewide.

The elections office says all results reported tonight will be “unofficial partial.” People should wait to declare victory until officials get the full count Friday.

Nebiha is glad to hear most people are voting safely, and she isn’t worried about the delay in results either.

“We already have a cake out here,” Nebiha said. “We’re celebrating regardless.”

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