‘Complicated’ Election in Chinatown

Yuh-Line Niou (Photo via Twitter)

Yuh-Line Niou (Photo via Twitter)

“A special election is very complicated,” said Virginia Kee, a co-founder of the United Democratic Organization, the Democratic Club in Chinatown. “This is the first time I’ll be going through a special election,” said Jenny Low, a district leader of State Assembly District 65, which includes Chinatown. Indeed, there were only three special elections in the past four decades in the entire Manhattan, and none were in Chinatown. This has already made the special election slated on April 19 to fill the vacancy left by former Assembly member Sheldon Silver “special” for voters in Chinatown. But that’s not all. This will be the first election in Chinatown that has no primary. And the Chinese are scratching their heads and trying to figure out what to make of it.

A special election doesn’t have to be without a primary. The special election last year in the Chinese concentrated Council District 23 in Queens that elected Council member Barry Grodenchik was a full election with a highly competitive primary in which all candidates campaigned actively. But in the upcoming one in Chinatown, the names on the ballot that the voters will see on Election Day are only those who have been selected by the parties to be their candidates.

In Low’s view, the Democratic Party’s schedule for the nomination meeting, which has been slated for this coming Sunday, has already put Chinese candidates in a disadvantaged situation. “Sunday is Lunar New Year’s Eve. The Chinese voting members of the party committee would prefer to stay home for the traditional family dinner than go to the meeting,” said Low.

Low said she emailed the party to request a different date but was brushed off. She herself has rescheduled her family’s New Year’s Eve dinner to Saturday for the nomination meeting, and she hopes other Chinese voting members will try their best to go to the meeting to support their own candidates.

John Liu, former city comptroller who ran for mayor in 2013 but failed, looked at the special election from a practical perspective and concluded that a special election without a primary may not be more confusing than a full election for the Chinese voters. Liu said many Chinese voters don’t like to register as party members because of bad memories of political torture in their home countries. A primary which is only open to party members is therefore exclusive to many Chinese voters. “This time, any registered voter can go to cast their ballot on April 19. It is not a bad thing,” said Liu.

Johnson Lee, a veteran member of the Chinese American Voters Association who has been promoting voter registration in the community for decades, showed some understanding of this arrangement for a special election. Lee said there are already four election days for New York voters this year, including the presidential primary which is on the same day as the special election. These are already expensive for taxpayers and burdensome for voters. To add a primary in addition would be too much.

Lee said another possibility is to not schedule a special election and wait until the normal term end election that has its primary in September. But that means the district would have no representative in the State Assembly until the assembly member-elect would be inaugurated next January. That would hurt the interest of the constituents. “So a special election without a primary seems to be the only option,” said Lee.

Yuh-Line Niou, chief of staff for Assembly member Ron Kim (D-Queens) and one of the candidates who is running for the seat, confessed she has been debating herself about the no-primary special election. “On one hand, I do believe we should let the voters choose the candidates. A nomination conducted only by the party committee is not democracy. But I also want this district to get a representative as quickly as possible so he or she can fight for the constituents in Albany,” said Niou. [Editor’s note: Niou has been endorsed by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Comptroller John Liu and the Chinatown UDO.]

Council member Margaret Chin has no ambiguity on this topic. “This is a very political procedure. We have to do it this time. But I hope we can change it in the future,” said Chin.

Despite their different opinions, everyone interviewed for this story called on Chinese voters to cast ballots on April 19 to show the power of the community. [Editor’s note: This election is only to complete the Assembly seat term through the end of 2016. That person, if he or she chooses, will run for reelection in the State Assembly primary on Sept. 13 and, presuming that person wins the primary, in the general election on Nov. 8.]

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