The Hennepin County attorney's office is investigating whether a private mailbox center in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has been improperly used as an address for more than 140 voters.

State records show that 419 Cedar Avenue S. has been used by some of the voters as far back as 2008.

No one lives at the address, which is a Somali-dominated commercial building housing several small businesses and a popular mail center. Several dozen apartments upstairs use a different building number. Records also show that more than 90 of the registrants at that address have voted in previous elections, although it's unclear how many voted while registered at 419 Cedar.

The investigation reignites a long-running debate about voter fraud in Minnesota and is the latest flash point in the highly competitive race between Capitol stalwart Rep. Phyllis Kahn and Mohamud Noor, who would become the first Somali-American elected to the Legislature if elected. Kahn was denied the DFL endorsement in April due in part to Noor's ability to turn out Somali supporters. An August primary will decide the fate of the race.

After discovering the number of registrants at 419 Cedar, Brian Rice, an attorney for Kahn's campaign, filed a petition asking the county to investigate.

"Every person needs to know they can only vote where they live," Rice said in an e-mail. "Any person registered at 419 Cedar cannot be allowed to vote from that address."

Absentee voting began last Friday for the primary. Hundreds of people have turned in absentee ballots in the race. City clerk Casey Carl could not say whether anyone has voted from this address, however.

The mail center is commonly used by Somali immigrants who need a permanent address to receive important mail, particularly if they move frequently.

Reached by the Star Tribune, three of the registrants said they were truck drivers. One said he slept in his truck, while another lives in Eagan but is usually on the road. The man who lives in his truck, Hassan Ahmed, said he registered to vote in conjunction with his citizenship ceremony several years ago.

Roqia Hassan, the owner of the mailbox center, said Monday she was surprised when she learned of the registrations. People who apply for one of the hundreds of mailboxes are required to fill out a form that specifies that they cannot use the address on their state or driver IDs. Two customers at the business on Monday showed that their IDs do, in fact, have different home addresses.

"Always I follow the rules," Hassan said of flagging suspicious packages and cooperating with various law enforcement inquiries over the 13 years she has run the business. "That's why I'm shocked."

One new customer came to the center Sunday after being contacted by a reporter, wondering who had registered this address in his name, Hassan said. Records indicate that the registration was changed recently. "Who made registration for him?" Hassan said, adding that the man was perplexed.

Marie Kay, the site manager for the building, said that about once a year a sheriff's deputy will come by looking for someone whose address is at 419 Cedar.

"They'll be looking for someone in apartment G138," Kay said. "And that always signifies to me that it's someone that has a mailbox there."

The petition is being investigated by the Hennepin County attorney's office, with a hearing scheduled for July 10. County election manager Ginny Gelms said the county removes addresses from precinct books after receiving a tip or spotting issues in city and county property databases.

"So if someone were to walk into the polling place on Election Day and say, 'This is my address,' the election judges would know from looking at the precinct finder that that's not a valid address in the precinct," she said.

No such flag now exists on 419 Cedar, however, pending the findings of the investigation. Complaints such as Rice's trigger an automatic investigation mandated by state statute, which determines whether voters at the address are eligible. But in the interim Gelms has advised the absentee ballot board, which makes determinations whether to accept or reject ballots, to refrain from reviewing any ballots from this address until the investigation is complete.

State rules state that voters must state their residential address, rather than a mailing address, when registering to vote.

People who do not have a permanent home — including the homeless — are supposed to register an address for wherever they reside, such as an intersection, along with a separate mailing address if they have one. For typical voter registrations, the county checks a person's various identification numbers against existing databases and then sends a postal verification card to the address, which is returned undeliverable if there is any problem.

Voter fraud concerns

Conservatives for years have argued that the state's system was vulnerable to fraud and pushed for greater voter security. Democrats, in their attempts to broaden access, insisted that fraud was minimal and that Republicans wanted to depress turnout.

"There is a side of me that is kind of chuckling," Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said Monday. Newman sponsored the failed constitutional amendment that would have required voters to present photo ID at the polls. "This particular story lends credence to what some of us have tried to accomplish."

Newman said voters in 2012 rejected the idea that a voter ID requirement should be enshrined in the constitution but, "the issue of voter fraud has never gone away."

Now a candidate for state attorney general, Newman said the Minneapolis case, if it proves out, will serve as a reminder that voter fraud is very real.

Minnesota Majority's Dan McGrath said his conservative group has forwarded several cases of alleged fraud to law enforcement over the years. "I'm glad that, at least this instance, it has been caught," he said.

Under state law, the Hennepin County attorney's office must quickly investigate the Minneapolis allegations.

"Minnesota has a process for dealing with questions about voters' eligibility," said Dennis Smith, spokesman for Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. He said Ritchie, who will retire at the end of his term, had no comment on the allegations.

DFL Rep. Steve Simon, of Hopkins, said he would not speculate on the outcome of the investigation but said, "If there has been illegal conduct there will be consequences, serious consequences, under Minnesota law right now."

Simon, who is running to replace Ritchie, said if the voters used absentee ballots to vote, that might prove a boon to the voting system.

"When people vote absentee you can track that ballot," he said. Since those ballots are not counted until shortly before the election, ineligible voters can be screened out.

Newman agrees. "It may give us an extra bite out of the apple when it comes to security," he said.

Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-925-5046