HOLMDEL, NJ - If you don't live in Holmdel, you can't vote in Holmdel. That's one aspect of an election lawsuit involving Committeeman Prakash Santhana in what is becoming the longest election (2019 General Election still under litigation) in the history of Holmdel Township.
The good news is that it is almost over. After over two days of hearings. Both sides expect a decision in mid October.
Elections are not a very tidy process and 2019 was a messy 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 2019 June Primary after a recount (he lost this year as well in a different election). Independent candidates Cathy Weber and Prakash Santhana ran as Independents in 2019.
Ultimately, Cathy Weber won as top vote getter. 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. However, after provisional and other absentee ballots were counted, he lost. Santhana asked for a recount. The recount resulted in another election change with Santhana taking the lead again. Ultimately, Santhana was declared the winner by two votes over Liu and is currently seated on the dais as a voting member of the Holmdel Township Committee.
After it was over, however, a lawsuit filed by Liu. The allegations were over uncounted and possibly illegal votes.
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 indeed received in a timely fashion. The lawsuit further claims that eight vote by mail ballots were also timely received by the board of elections and that they should be counted as well. Board of Elections 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 challenged all of those votes and stated that they were improperly rejected and should be counted and that the voters were unlawfully disenfranchised.
Elected officials implicated
In an allegation with potential wider legal implications, the lawsuit claimed that eight votes were illegal. Included were adult members of Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso's family as well as adult members of Committeeman Rocco Pascucci's family. Another former elected official was also named, former Deputy Mayor Carole Balmer.
Santhana supporter responds
A local Democrat supporter of Santhana, Kin Gee, blogged a varied response on Friday for Santhana in response to the lawsuit. Gee posted that Liu was wrong in references to Chinese heritage on the governing body. He wrote, "Liu’s election campaign has been marked by scandals that included “bannergate” in which a political banner hung at a school property during a football game against school policy despite Liu’s 9-year tenure as a member of the Board of Education and the false and misleading statement in her mailer that she seeks to be the first Asian American to be on the Township Committee when Holmdel already had a Chinese descendent that had served as Mayor back in 1999."
Liu would be the first Asian-American woman in Holmdel to serve on the Township Committee, if the judge rules in her favor.
Gee also criticized Republican candidate DJ Lucarelli's late mother and his brother on voting during the 2019 election. He claimed that Mrs. Lucarelli's vote was not properly cast. The Lucarelli family is a long time Holmdel family with deep farming and business roots in Holmdel. The Lucarelli family founded Dearborn Farms, a specialty market in Holmdel. Mrs. Lucarelli was a beloved member of Holmdel.
Stated Gee, "Township Committeeman Prakash Santhana is a party to this lawsuit that includes County Clerk Christine Hanlon, the Board of Elections, the Superintendent of Elections and Holmdel Township Clerk. Given Luccarelli’s certification, Santhana’s attorney produced a handwriting expert report that indicated that there is a strong probability that Dolores Luccarelli did not sign her name for the mail-in ballot."
Liu's team maintains the process was in order. Other votes challenged by Santhana include Alexandra Murray and Mike Lupo - Both are said to have voted for Liu but signatures of the teenagers are reported to be under question by Santhana's attorneys because they look different from that of their voting card.
The battle of what votes are legal or not seems to be a shared argument that the judge will have to sort out. From Liu's attorneys, they are challenging many votes and a few that have well known local names. One is Committeeman Rocco Pascucci. Another is Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso. Pascucci is leaving the governing body at the end of the year. Rocco Pascucci, according to legal claims, had both of his children vote via absentee ballot. In their mid 30’s, Liu's case claims that both adult children live out of Holmdel and, in one case, out of state. Pascucci resides in an age restricted - over 55 community since 2018.
Another is Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso's adult daughter. The argument is that she does not live in town and was not legally eligible to vote in Holmdel. Still another is former Deputy Mayor Carole Balmer. She is said to have been residing in Middletown, not Holmdel, when her vote was cast for 2019.
Since the difference in the vote totals between Santhana and Liu are miniscule, any change can either affirm his place on the dais or have him removed and Liu sworn in for the remainder of the three-year term.
With the 2020 General Election and the 2019 lawsuit, the control of the Holmdel Township Committee for 2021 is anybody's guess.