President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers in Minnesota called for an investigation Monday into a conservative activist group's allegations of illegal mail-in ballot "harvesting" in a special Minneapolis City Council election this summer.
A spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department said they were "in the process of looking into the validity" of the group's statements. Meanwhile the Hennepin County Attorney's Office said it was made aware of the allegations in the media but had received no information or cases involving so-called ballot harvesting in any elections held this year.
With just five weeks until the Nov. 3 election, Republicans seized on the mail-in fraud allegations in the city's August primary to question the security of the no-excuse absentee voting system for the general election, which started on Sept. 18.
The allegations, brought by the conservative activist group Project Veritas, come as Trump and his GOP allies have intensified their criticism of mail-in voting, which has grown in popularity across the nation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Election experts say there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S., although Trump has used the issue to already cast doubt on the results of the presidential election.
Minnesota Democrats countered Monday that Republicans are trying to "subvert a fair and free election." They also challenged the legitimacy of the allegations from Project Veritas, a group with a controversial history of using undercover tactics and selectively edited video to try to expose what they say is corruption on the left and in the media.
Project Veritas said it obtained Snapchat videos from early July posted by Minneapolis resident Liban Mohamed, the brother of Minneapolis City Council member Jamal Osman. Mohamed says in the video that he collected 300 absentee ballots in a single day for his brother's special election race in Minneapolis' Sixth Ward, which was held on Aug. 11, the same day as the statewide primary election.
Mohamed is also heard in the video saying: "Money is everything, money is the king of this world. If you don't have money you should not be here period." Republicans say that could be evidence of a cash-for-ballot scheme, though there's no direct evidence in the videos of money being exchanged for ballots. The Star Tribune sent a message to Mohamed's Snapchat account, but he did not return a request for comment.
Osman condemned the allegations of fraud in a lengthy Facebook post:
"Throughout my campaign, I let my staff, volunteers and supporters know my values including the type of race I wanted to run," Osman wrote. "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. The community is proud to be here, passionate about exercising their constitutional right to vote and excited to elect the next President of the United States."
Wade Buckley, who volunteered as Osman's campaign manager starting in February, confirmed that Mohamed is Osman's brother but said he had never heard of any efforts to force or pay Sixth Ward residents to vote for Osman.
"Nothing like that ever came up in our campaign at all," said Buckley, who produced videos for Osman and knocked on doors handing out campaign literature. He said he has not spoken to Osman since he was sworn into the City Council.
Republicans argue that Project Veritas' report represents evidence of ballot harvesting, or allowing third parties to collect ballots and turn them into polling locations. It is legal in Minnesota to assist up to three individuals in turning in their ballots under special circumstances.
A district-court ruling on July 28 temporarily struck down that limit, making it legal for a period of time during the primary election for an individual to collect an unlimited number of ballots and turn them in to election officials. The Minnesota Supreme Court reinstated the three-person limit in a Sept. 4 ruling.
Omar Jamal, a Somali political operative, told Veritas that he believes ballot harvesters in the community are hired and take advantage of elderly community members and that Fifth District U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is connected to the alleged election fraud. However neither he nor the videos provide any direct evidence that this is true. Jamal did not immediately return a Star Tribune request for comment.
"The amount of truth to this story is equal to the amount Donald Trump paid in taxes of 10 out of the last 15 years: zero," Omar spokesman Jeremy Slevin said in a statement. "And amplifying a coordinated right-wing campaign to delegitimize a free and fair election this fall undermines our democracy."
But by Monday morning several conservative media outlets had picked up the Veritas story and Trump had tweeted or retweeted Project Veritas' connection to the congresswoman five times, saying he hoped the U.S. attorney in Minnesota had "her many misdeeds, under serious review."
Project Veritas has tried to plant fake stories with news organizations in the past and has been accused of manipulating video footage. "Project Veritas is a discredited, far-right propaganda outfit known for lying, entrapment, and breaking the law," DFL Party Ken Martin said in a statement.
Minnesota House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, Republican Lead on the House Elections Committee, sent a letter to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon urging an investigation. But Secretary of State spokeswoman Risikat Adesaogun said their office "doesn't make determinations of legality, and we also don't have investigative authority."
Hennepin County officials say it would be up to local law enforcement agencies to investigate the sort of allegations being made by Project Veritas and then bring them forward for charges. The County Attorney's Office usually files a dozen or so cases involving some type of election violations, primarily felons voting despite still being on probation.
In a statement, the County Attorney's Office said no allegations have been brought forward for prosecution other than those of an unidentified woman named "Megan" who they said recently contacted prosecutors with concerns about "ballot harvesting."
Prosecutors recommended that she report her concerns to local law enforcement for investigation. "The County Attorney's Office has no information about whether this individual, or Project Veritas, contacted local law enforcement about their allegations," they said.