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
October 25, 2013 at 3:42 pm
This isn’t voter intimidation, no one stopped the voters from voting or harassed them. Its simple, you have a relative, someone in your household, or a postal worker deliver it for you. Or mail it in. It is highly suspect that you would be in a situation where you would forego all those options and instead have someone else take your absentee ballot in for you.
“There is no representation in city hall,”: someone has not been to city hall that often.
And it is not the city’s responsibility to teach people English. Should the city provide multingual information so all can understand? Sure. But English isn’t just a language you need to learn to vote for who you want on city council, it is also a useful tool for when you want to interact with your neighbors, or with store owners whom you are of a different culture/ethnicity, or when you go to the hospital and need medical attention, or if you call 911 and have an emergency situation.
There seems to be a shortage of students in our public schools, maybe we can encourage some people to enroll and take a few English courses, maybe even some Math and Science. Or Social Sutdies.
But having City Council information tailored for each community is on those council members who are a part of those diverse communities to be responsible for. There are Bangladeshi council members, they should take it upon themselves to educate their community, so that no one has to face criminal charges for not understanding how absentee ballots work.
And one last thing, you can’t just say the city needs to higher more diverse people to represent the 60%. You can’t just higher people because they are there, they have to be qualified for the position, have experience, and be able to work. On top of all that, there have to actually be positions to hire them into.
October 27, 2013 at 2:49 pm
Check with the voters to see if they were not forced
If it’s their first offense I think $1,000 fine will be alright…….. 5 Years in jail is a bit extreme for first offenders violating the law in law scale operation.
I understand the danger those people did were you give the people the power to fetch votes from those (who might not be interested in voting) or (those who might feel pressure by the candidate because he/she is from the same race or religion)
The only way to make sure the election is fair is to follow the laws that were placed there…. and Let this be a warning to others.
October 28, 2013 at 11:30 am
This is not voter intimidation, nor is it the responsibility of the City to hire and educate Bangladeshi people. The City needs to hire whatever person is best for the job, regardless of ethnic heritage. Nor is it the City’s responsibility to educate on the proper handling of ballots or any other American Law. If you make the choice to move to a foreign country and take advantage of its benefits, it is AT LEAST half your responsibility to learn the language, educate yourself on the laws, rules and customs. The place you move to does not bear responsibility to cater to you, to publish things in 50 different languages, etc. This is a case of either straight illegal activity because the group does not feel they are represented or want to take over, or whatever, OR it is the common “I don’t want to take responsibility for myself so I am going to blame it on someone else.” Grow up. Take responsibility for your own business. Go to school, learn the language, laws and customs. Be responsible for yourself.
October 28, 2013 at 5:05 pm
This is why those countries are so messed up. America might be the land of the free but it’s not a free for all. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you want things to be the way they were in the old country so bad……go back. At least make an effort to be American.
October 29, 2013 at 12:13 am
The US Supreme Court ruled that ignorance of the law as an excuse for a crime is valid in the case of Lambert v. California … should we tell the Judges to go back to the country they originally from because they uphold that view?! The Black & White (Ideology) is not the American way of law.
There is not a single country in the world except it has its own problem to deal with, and using the problems from overseas (from Europe or Asia) as a token to gain privilege in an argument it is not the best solution in my opinion.
Solving problems without racism or racial profiling IS the American way.
October 29, 2013 at 2:45 pm
Mohamed you bring up a good point.
But that defense, from what I gather in an Internet search, is only good when a law is really, really obscure. For example, there was a law at one time, and maybe still is, that it is illegal to peal an orange in a hotel room in LA.
IN the case of the Hamtramck AV ballots, the law is clearly written on the packaging of the ballot in three places.
Thanks for your input.
November 5, 2013 at 9:37 am
1. Yes, voter education is important.
2. Hire them if they are qualified, sure.
3. We do need a plan to address cultural issues, but not necessarily in the context of “religious sensitivity”. There are a lot of barriers that both sides don’t cross, and if you are working to build the city back up here, there is often a lack of response from the immigrant communities – due to language, probably, and some other factors.
4. I see no evidence of voter intimidation, but I do see some council members skirting unethical lines to get votes.