About 50 men and women packed a Rice County courtroom Tuesday afternoon as two Somali women pleaded not guilty to charges of voter fraud stemming from the general election last November.
Farhiya Abdi Dool, 38, and Amina A Hassan, 31, each face one felony charge of unlawful voting for voting once by absentee ballot and once at a polling place during the 2012 general election. Each woman faces five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for the offense.
The women, both naturalized U.S. citizens, were charged June 21.
With Minneapolis-based defense attorney Julie Nelson at their side, Dool and Hassan each entered a plea of not guilty on Tuesday afternoon. As was the case with their first court appearances, the women were backed by family members, friends, neighbors and advocates all listening closely to the proceedings.
Supporters of the women say that their actions were an honest mistake that should not be punished with a felony charge. Nelson took the defense a step further during an interview after the hearing.
“I find it offensive that these women have been criminally charged,” Nelson said. “These women came to this country, they are naturalized citizens, and they wanted to vote.”
Nelson said she expected the outcome of the cases to have a “chilling effect” on the Somali community.
According to the criminal complaints, Dool and Hassan had completed voter registration applications at the Rice County Auditor’s Office on Nov. 5, 2012. The auditor’s office also has record of Dool and Hassan voting by absentee ballot that day.
Dool and Hassan each completed another voter registration application the next day, Election Day, at their polling location and signed the roster of new registrants, according to the complaint. They also voted at that time.
Dool told a Rice County sergeant in February that her intention was only to register at the Rice County Government Services building and that she didn’t realize she had voted.
Hassan’s comments to the sergeant were very similar. Through a Somali interpreter, she recalled going to the government building to register and vote, according to the complaint. But she said she later heard that she was supposed to go to a polling location to vote, so she did.
Hassan said she had asked at the polling location if it was a problem if she had just voted but that a woman told her it was “no problem,” according to the complaint. The conversation went through an interpreter.
Dool and Hassan’s incidents were two of about 25 cases of suspected voter fraud forwarded by the auditor’s office to the sheriff’s office for investigation on Jan. 31, according to Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster.
Of those, two — Dool and Hassan — have been charged criminally.
The women’s cases are set for jury trials beginning Nov. 4.
Reach reporter Rebecca Kurie at 333-3128, or follow her on Twitter.com @FDNRebecca