HOLMDEL, NJ - If you don't live in Holmdel, you can't vote in Holmdel. That's the punch line in what is becoming the longest election in the history of Holmdel Township.
Illegal voting forms a key element of a lawsuit filed by former Holmdel School Board Member and recent Township Committee candidate, Chiung-Yin Cheng Liu. She came up a couple votes shy in the 2019 election. If the alleged illegal votes are thrown out by a court, the results of the election may be determined by exactly which candidate was supported by the allegedly illegal votes. If a small number of these votes were for Santhana, the election may flip again. This is turning into quite a nail biter.
Elections are not a very tidy process on any level and 2019 was a very tough year in Holmdel. There were two incumbents originally for 2019, Mayor Eric Hinds and Mike Nikolis. They had previously run together three years earlier. Hinds, however, chose to run with then Holmdel School Board Member Chiung-Yin Cheng Liu on the Monmouth County Republican Line. Nikolis was not given support by the Republican Party and ran on his own. He lost in the June Primary. Independent candidates Cathy Weber and Prakash Santhana ran as Independents.
The year was fraught with political fisticuffs including investigations of top township employees and the sitting Republican Mayor. Assemblyman Sean Kean was hired as an investigative attorney (Kean also works with Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso in the New Jersey Legislature). Kean billed approximately $60,000 to conduct the investigation of employees and elected officials.
As a result of the Kean investigations, nothing turned up against the Township Administrator. However, she chose to resign in 'good standing' with about six months of full pay and full benefits. She took another similar position in Asbury Park. The investigations also included a sewage backup payment from Hurricane Irene from years ago that was reimbursed to Committeeman Tom Critelli. This complaint went anonymously to the Monmouth County Prosecutors Office. The MCPO recently returned with a letter closing out the matter with no criminal investigation. The new 2020 Township Committee hasn't let it go. In fact, Committeeman Santhana claims, contrary to the Monmouth County Prosecutor, that there was fraud. During the 2019 election process, Committeeman Rocco Pascucci introduced a censure resolution against Mayor Hinds on a different issue, alleging he failed to disclose an item on the agenda to fund new recreation fields in town. It passed in a split vote with Hinds not at the meeting. Committeeman Critelli called it a political witch hunt. However, The censure likely created the margin needed for Hinds to lose the election by a couple dozen votes. Hinds recently sued for violations of the Open Public Meetings Act but the suit was recently dismissed.
So, back to the general election.
Cathy Weber won big as top vote getter. Her total was far ahead of everyone. It was the second spot that was so close. Santhana initially won the second spot when the vote totals first came in to town hall. In fact, an area of real strength for him was the absentee ballots that came in early which included the local nursing homes. However, after provisional and other absentee ballots were counted, he lost by a few votes. So, Santhana asked for a recount. The recount resulted in another election change with Santhana taking the lead again.
Today, after the year long whirlwind Santhana is now the winner by two votes over Chiung-Yin Cheng Liu and is seated on the dais as a voting member of the Holmdel Township Committee. The election, finally, is over.
Until it wasn't.
In a brand-new lawsuit, allegations of Illegal voting, disenfranchised voters, over-votes and timely received votes are now part of the local election lexicon as. It has some familiar faces.
The last names of prominent current and former elected officials in town, DiMaso, Balmer and Pascucci, have been implicated as well as others in an amended lawsuit filed against Committeeman Prakash Santhana by candidate Chiung-Yin Cheng Liu. The allegations are numerous and the results of the suit will either keep or replace Committeeman Santhana. It also sheds light on the underbelly of local politics and politicians trying to get any vote they can get. The Liu lawsuit alleges illegal votes were cast.The State of New Jersey Title 19 takes voting really seriously (meaning you can get in trouble) and list penalties as follows:
19:34-12 Attempt to cast illegal vote; third degree crime.
19:34-12. Every person not entitled to vote who fraudulently attempts to vote, or who being entitled to vote attempts to vote more than once at any election, or who personates or attempts to personate a person legally entitled to vote, shall be guilty of a crime of the third degree.
The new lawsuit questions nine provisional and so-called 48 hour vote-by-mail ballots. It is claimed that the Board of Elections improperly voided a provisional ballot as an 'over-vote' and should have been counted. One of the 48-hour ballots received contained of vote for both Liu and Hinds and only counted the vote for Hinds even though an 'X' was written next to Liu's name. The suit claims that should be counted for Liu.
The Board of Elections (BOE) also avoided 10 vote by mail ballots due to perceived signature matching issues in the lawsuit the folks that vote are alleged to have been unlawfully disenfranchised as a result of what the lawsuit says is he perceived technicality and that the vote should have been counted in other areas they challenge what is called an indeterminate postmark
One-vote that was voided belonged to Donna Carannante, a registered voter and relative of Committeeman Tom Critelli. Her vote was thrown out due to a postmark issue. However, the lawsuit claims that she was unlawfully disenfranchised and that the vote was received in a timely fashion. The lawsuit further claims that eight vote by mail ballots were also timely received the board of elections and that they should be counted as well. BOE also voided 31 vote by mail ballots on the basis of the ballots not being received within the 48-hour period following the close of polls. The suit challenges all of those votes and states that they were improperly rejected and should be counted and that the voters were unlawfully disenfranchised.
In an allegation with potential wider legal implications, the lawsuit also claims that eight votes were illegal. Included are adult members of Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso's family as well as adult members of Committeeman Rocco Pascucci's family. Another former elected official is also named, former Deputy Mayor Carole Balmer. Specifically, the lawsuit states:
ILLEGAL VOTES RECEIVED
In connection with the Election, the Petitioner has become aware of eight
(8) illegal votes received and counted by the BOE.Carole Balmer cast a vote in the Election but does not reside in Holmdel.
Ms. Balmer has resided in the Township of
Middletown for more than six months preceding the Election. Therefore, Ms. Balmer
was not eligible to vote the Election.
Alana DiMaso cast a vote in the Election but does not reside in Holmdel.
Ms. DiMaso has resided in Boston, Massachusetts for more than six
months preceding the Election. Therefore, Ms. DiMaso was not eligible to vote in the
Matthew DiMaso cast a vote in the Election but does not reside in
Mr. DiMaso has resided in Hoboken, New Jersey for more than six months
preceding the Election. Therefore, Mr. DiMaso was not eligible to vote in the election.
Rocco A. Pascucci cast a vote in the Election but does not reside in
Mr. Pascucci has resided in the State of New York for more than six
months preceding the Election. Therefore, Mr. Pascucci was not eligible to vote in the
Judith Pascucci cast a vote in the election but does not reside in Holmdel Ms. Pascucci has resided in North Brunswick, New Jersey for more than six months prior to the election. Therefore, Ms. Pascucci was not eligible to vote in the election.
Chris Fazio cast a vote in the Election but does not reside in Holmdel.
Mr. Fazio has resided in the State of California for more than six months
preceding the Election. Therefore, Mr. Fazio was not eligible to vote in the election.
Julia Vitale cast a vote in the Election but does not reside in Holmdel.
Ms. Vitale has resided in the Union, New Jersey for more than six months
preceding the Election. Therefore, Mr. Vitale was not eligible to vote in the election.
Karen Nici cast a vote in the election but does not reside in Holmdel. Ms. Nici has resided in Hoboken, NJ for more than six months preceding the election. Therefore, Ms. Nici is not eligible to vote in the election.
The BOE improperly counted the votes of Ms. Balmer, Ms. DiMaso, Mr.
DiMaso, Mr. Pascucci, Ms. Pascucci, Mr. Fazio, Ms. Vitale and Ms. Nici in this election.
While listed as illegal votes, it is only an allegation at this time. A judge and relevant legal investigation and adjudication will make a final determination. Regardless, it is clear that the election in Holmdel for 2019 may not be resolved any time soon. The issue will reside with the court system and possibly other investigatory bodies that are responsible to ensure that the voting process is protected, sacrosanct and that all legally cast votes are counted in Holmdel and the State of New Jersey.