By Charles Sercombe
The Bangladeshi-American community rallied last Friday in protest to three members of that community facing a felony charge of illegally handling absentee ballots in the August Primary Election.
Almost 100 attended the protest in Zussman Park, across from city hall.
Many held up signs, some accusing the city of voter intimidation. Attending the protest were City Councilmembers Abdul Algazali and Mohammed Hassan as well as some of the Bengali city council candidates. Algazali is running for mayor, and Hassan is seeking re-election.
In a prepared statement, organizers blamed the city for the charges because it failed to “educate voters.”
“Many are not aware of the proper handling of absentee ballots which has led to recent charges being filed against members of the community,” they said.
Three Hamtramck men, Salim Ahmed, 50, Armani Asad, 33 and Russell Mohammed, 32, are charged with illegally delivering a total of 41 absentee ballots for the primary election.
They face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
All of the ballots submitted by the three men were counted in the election.
Mayor Karen Majewski questioned the claim of some of those at the rally accusing the city of voter intimidation.
“I see no proof of voter intimidation,” Majewski said.
A fourth Hamtramck man, Mohammed Rahmon, 61, handed in six ballots for the Nov. 6 election from voters not related to him or residing in his household, said Deputy City Clerk August Gitschlag.
Gitschlag said the state Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the latest case. The AG’s office is prosecuting the other three men.
State election law allows only family members of a voter or those in their household and postal workers to return a ballot if a voter can’t return it in person or mail it.
That rule is stated on the envelope of the absentee ballot and in two other places in the packaging that includes the ballot.
One of the organizers of the protest, Mohammed Nazmul Hoque Helal, concedes that ignorance of the law is no defense, but he stressed that the city needs to be sensitive to the language barrier.
“We need to have clarification,” he said. “We have no dispute with the rules.”
He also said that the city needs to hire people from the Bangladeshi-American community, or even allow a volunteer to be on hand to talk to voters.
“There is no representation in city hall,” he said.
The City Clerk’s Office does post election notices in the Bangladeshi language as well as in Arabic and Bosnian. Several Bangladeshi-Americans have also been hired as election workers and are stationed at all the polling locations in the city on election day.
Deputy City Clerk Gitschlag said he treats all election concerns with “sensitivity.” He declined to comment further.
The Bangladeshi community has become the city’s largest voting bloc in recent years, and more members of that community have become politically active by seeking office.
In the Nov. 5 election, Bangladeshi candidates are poised to take four seats on council. If they are successful there will be five out of six council seats filled by members of that community.
The use of absentee ballots has recently become more noticeable. In the primary election, over 700 voters used this method to vote, which was an unprecedented number.
In previous elections, typically about 300 voters voted by absentee ballot
As of a week ago, over 800 voters have applied to vote absentee.
Bengali community members demand change in city hall
Below is a letter from members of the Bangladeshi-American community outlining their grievances with Hamtramck’s city government:
“Hamtramck has one of the largest Bangladeshi communities in America. They are part of the growing Muslim community which many claim is now more than 60 percent of the total Hamtramck population, certainly the highest percentage of any city in America. Still there are very few if no Muslims or Bangladeshis employed by the city.
“Many of the immigrants speak very little English and know very little about the electoral procedures in America. The failure of the city to educate voters and to take necessary steps to effectively communicate with different minority groups is leading to a growing number of eligible voters staying away from voting and exercising their voting rights. Many are not aware of the proper handling of absentee ballots whish has led to recent charges being filed against members of the community.
“In addition, the city appears insensitive to the religious customs of the growing Muslim community as experienced recently during the Ramadan holiday when city water was turned off in many homes where residents were fasting and staying indoors.
“We, the following requesting on behalf of the community that the City of Hamtramck:
“1. Restart the multi-lingual voter education training in advance of the elections, as stated in the 2000 court order.
“2. Hire staff from the largest Hamtramck immigrant community to reflect the populations which will help address real community issues.
“3. Work on a strategic plan to address religious sensitivity and other cultural issues with Hamtramck’s vast religious community and their customs.
“4. End voter harassment.
Nazmul Haque Helal, Dewan Akmol Choudhury, Shaker Sadek, Sayed Shahedul Haque, Kamal Rahman