Bangladeshi Voting Fever in the Boroughs

Bangladesh Society of New York puts your election obsession to shame

An election was about to be committed on American soil—no, not the one happening next week, the one that should result in a huge turnout by American standards, but will, inevitably, only rouse a minority of adult Americans to polling places. No, this was another kind of election entirely, one that involved people whose passion for politics is completely alien to the native-born of this country.

In the dead silence of a Sunday morning, hours before the crowds arrived, Chad Mia, a former manager at a Sbarro franchise, rode his truck full of milky sweet tea, stewed chickpeas, and lentil cakes through an industrial section of Queens. It was 2 a.m. He curled up in the front seat to catch a few hours of sleep. He wanted to guard both his spot from the other vendors that would arrive later on that day and something that was perhaps even more important: a large hanging banner that bore the face of a man named Mohammed Aziz, his favorite candidate. He feared the banner might be taken down during the night.

By 8 a.m., the sidewalks were bustling with people and television cameras from eight different stations; bejeweled women in brightly colored saris and men in suits were locked in noisy debate. Campaign staffers lined the block with tables and folding chairs. To get to the polling precinct—a warehouse called the "Queens Palace"—voters pushed through a narrow aisle of people who shoved flyers in their faces and shouted all at once.

So much clamor, and the actual voting wasn't set to begin for another two hours—for all the politicking and arguing and debate, these people were only casting ballots for the officers of a nonprofit organization.

The election of the Bangladesh Society of New York is one of the most festive days of the year for local immigrants. Voters, most of whom are noncitizens, are obsessed with the electoral process. "It's like Diwali!" one man said, referring to the Hindu festival of light that's happening in Jackson Heights this week. As in the presidential election, the same issues had come up: economic insecurity, voting fraud, and the charisma of the candidates.

An election commissioner, Sayed Tipu Sultan, wearing a ribbon with the words "Commissioner of Elections" pinned to his blazer, buzzed about confidently, maintaining order. "This is going to be a very hard-fought election," he announced. "Both parties are very strong."

He barked into a BlackBerry and took a moment to talk to the television cameras. Nearly 13,000 people were registered to vote. They would make their way to four other precincts—in nearby Jamaica and Ozone Park, in the Bronx, and in Brooklyn.

Everything was running smoothly, he said, but that hasn't always been the case. "Whenever a party lost an election, he would file a petition to the court," Sultan said. "You know, just to play around a little bit."

One man, who called himself a campaign manager, was manning a table on the sidewalk. "Our panel is the very best panel!" he yelled, pushing a flyer with his slate of candidates—all on the Aziz team—into people's faces as they walked by.

People seemed to be in high spirits, and they had reason to be happy. Just two days earlier, a district court judge had dismissed a lawsuit against the popular Aziz, a wealthy contractor who was seeking a three-year term as president of the Society. The plaintiffs in the suit—from his political opposition—had alleged that Aziz paid the registration fees, at $20 each, for hundreds of people. That allegation did turn out to be partially true (Aziz insists that he paid for only a handful of people)—but, the court found, it was well within the rules set out by the society's official election commission.

The rules required no financial disclosures, but it was rumored that Aziz had spent half a million dollars of his own money on his campaign (Aziz later said it was only $300,000), and he was heavily favored to win.

"When we have a candidate, we support him with our heart and soul," said Mia. "We support him with money, plus energy. We support this guy because he will bring us into mainstream American politics. He will be our voice!"

Just weeks before, Mia had lost his job as a manager at a Sbarro restaurant on Canal Street. Business was down 40 percent. The job market in New York is very bad, he explained. Since he lost his job, he's been working as a street vendor in Jackson Heights. The election, he pointed out, is itself an economic engine for the struggling community (Sultan says it costs about $100,000 to run). Mia was hoping the charitable Aziz would set up job-training programs if he was elected president.

Aziz, who is based in Bed-Stuy, builds affordable housing in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. He was running on a platform of building a community center, fixing immigration problems, and finding jobs for Bangladeshis.

People lined up to enter the precinct, showing IDs at the door. The machines were the same ones used by the city. Poll workers checked people's last names and sent them to the proper booth to vote, each of which was guarded by a beefy African-American man wearing a black SECURITY T-shirt. The security men checked the levers on the machines to ensure that nobody voted twice.

Most people had no trouble using the machines—Aziz had sponsored training workshops a few weeks earlier.

Outside, the security guards ushered people off the sidewalk, appearing more like bouncers at a nightclub than supervisors of an election. (At one point, even the election commissioner himself was told to clear the area.) Armed plainclothes NYPD officers were also standing by.

"We are born into politics," said Mia, adding that Bangladeshis love Barack Obama. "It's the way we grow up—politics, politics," he said. "Americans don't seem to care that much."

Few people, however, could name the Bangladesh Society's accomplishments during the previous year.

"For hundreds of years, we were suppressed by the Dutch. And then by the British. And we fought them! But nobody could rule us forever. We really like to get involved to change our fate," said commissioner Sultan. He paused a moment, and then noted that in Bangladesh itself, the political system is woefully corrupt. "But it never changes that much."

After the votes were counted, Aziz had won by a 75 percent margin.

"I never thought I was actually that popular," he said a few days after the raucous day of voting. "It's unbelievable. I just couldn't believe how much people like me."

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