A Superior Court Judge in New Jersey today posthumously disenfranchised a 93-year-old great-grandmother whose final vote, cast in November 2021, just a month before she died, because her signature on a vote-by-mail ballot didn’t match others on file.
Julia S. Kerr had been a high-propensity voter in West Amwell since she cast her first vote in 1949, about four months after she turned 21. She came from a civic-minded family: her father, Earl Holcombe, had served on the West Amwell Board of Education and was active in his church and the West Amwell Fire Company, where generations of the Holcombe and Kerr families were leaders in their community.
While Kerr took voting seriously, at 93, she had not yet mastered the relative new ballot cure letters, so when one arrived during the 2021 campaign, she never returned it.
Kerr’s final vote is an issue in a challenge to a $33.4 million South Hunterdon Regional School bond referendum vote that passed by just two votes last November.
Judge Michael O’Neill upheld a decision by the Hunterdon County Board of Elections to reject Kerr’s mail-in ballot because her signature didn’t match others on file.
“There was one on file from October of 2019, which you know was a very unsteady handwriting — that particular signature — and then the certification voters signed … has a very, very smooth and clear signature,” O’Neill said. “The defendants point out that clearly these signatures don’t match, and I agree.”
O’Neill pointed to testimony from Kerr’s grandson, Ryan, who said the signature was too neat to be his grandmother’s and that “somebody may have signed for her.”
“Unfortunately, Mrs. Kerr passed away on December 5, 2021, so she wasn’t available here at the time of trial to come in and either confirm or not confirm that she intended to vote for the referendum or that that was her signature on the ballot,” O’Neill said. “We don’t know at this point how she would have voted, but we certainly don’t know for sure at any event because the cure procedure set forth in the statute was not complied with.”
Kerr also upheld the legitimacy of a disputed vote-by-mail ballot where the voter colored ovals next to the candidate of his or her choice but put an “X” over the “Yes” vote on the referendum.
“By putting an “X” through the oval, (the voter) indicated an intent to vote in favor of the referendum,” said O’Neill.
And Kerr disallowed votes cast by a Lambertville couple, Jane and Paul Wolkenstein, who moved from Mountain Lakes to Lambertville in August and voted by provisional ballots because their names didn’t show up on the voter rolls.
Jane Wolkenstein said she changed her address with the U.S. Postal Service after her move. Paul Wolkenstein testified that his wife handled his change of address.
But O’Neill said the Wolkenstein’s votes “can’t be counted because they simply didn’t comply with the with the procedure for registering or e registering or updating their voter registration at least 21 days before the election.”
The three votes decided by O’Neill leaves the outcome of the election unchanged, for now, with more than a dozen more challenges to individual voters set to come up when the trial resumes next week.
A lawsuit filed by four of the five township committee members in West Amwell is seeking to stop the school district from moving forward on a project to build a new school in next-door Lambertville and renovate another school.
The South Hunterdon Regional School bond referendum vote is the last unresolved election of the 2021 cycle.
O’Neill has had the lawsuit since last December, but the matter has proceeded slowly through the courts. It took O’Neill fifteen days to decide the three election challenges heard in court on May 12.
As the election challenge plays out into the summer of 2022, the matter could be for naught. Interest rates have been going up since the project went to the voters last fall and delays could sent the referendum – now at a higher cost – back to the voters anyway.