Election judge's misstep sent fellow voters to woman's rescue

Election Day at Hopkins precinct 4. An elderly Somalia-born woman who speaks little English advances to the table where a judge sits with lists of preregistered voters.

The voter's name is on the list. But the election judge won't let her pick up a ballot. If you can't speak English, how did you get to be a citizen? the judge asks. If you're not a citizen, the judge says, you can't vote.

Other voters in line hear the encounter and raise their voices. Let her vote, her name is on the list, they say.

If the scattered complaints that have reached Whistleblower, voter advocates and state officials are any indication, Election Day went smoothly in Minnesota. The scene at the Hopkins Activity Center appeared to be a bizarre but isolated confrontation.

Election judges aren't allowed to refuse ballots on suspicions that duly registered voters won't be able to read them. Nor are they charged with questioning a registered voter's citizenship on the basis of the voter's language skills.

"There were about six people who immediately went to this woman's defense," said Heidi Hemmen Saleska, a voter who was there. The judge eventually relented and the woman, who was accompanied by her daughter as interpreter, received her ballot.

Once the judge's supervisors found out about the situation, the judge was moved to a different table in which she was handing out ballots, instead of checking names.

This was the election judge's first year in the post, said Terry Obermaier, the Hopkins city clerk. And it will be her last.

"The judge used very bad judgment," Obermaier said. The clerk, who declined to name the judge, said she asked an immigrant liaison with the Hopkins Police Department to track down the voter to make sure that she did indeed vote.

Ultimately, Hemmen Saleska said, she found the scene uplifting.

"It actually made me proud in the end to watch all these people stick up for this woman," she said.

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