FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) -- A more than four decades-long public service career came to an end on Friday, with the retirement of Mary Sue Helm, Director of Administration and Elections in the Secretary of State’s office.
The Marion County native, who now lives in Lawrenceburg, began her career in 1976, as a deputy clerk for then-Jefferson County Clerk Bremer Ehrler, where she continued until 1984.
Helm says she saw a number of changes while working for Ehrler in the clerk’s office during that time when it came to voting.
“Getting the legislature to allow for an electronic voting system. Prior to that time, Jefferson County had 900-pound lever voting machines.”
Ehrler was appointed Jefferson County Judge-Executive by Gov. Martha Layne Collins, to fill the vacancy when Mitch McConnell was elected to the U. S. Senate.
When Ehrler retired in 1986, Helm went to work for the Department of Education in Frankfort, then moved over to the Secretary of State’s office two years later, when Ehrler was elected Secretary of State. She remained through the terms of succeeding Secretaries of State Bob Babbage, John Y. Brown, III, Trey Grayson, Elaine Walker and Alison Lundergan Grimes.
She joined the elections part of the office since 1990, where she has been ever since, except for a brief period of retirement in 2008.
When asked how many candidates’ applications she helped process during her time in Frankfort, Helm replied, “I wasn’t very good in math in school, so I don’t think I can count that high.”
In addition to helping numerous U. S. House and Senate and state candidates, Helm described another highlight. “I had the opportunity to be with one Presidential candidate, Mr. Ross Perot. He came into Kentucky and brought his filing papers himself. That was a memorable experience.”
Perot mounted an independent candidacy in 1992, against incumbent Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, who won the race.
“When we learned that Mr. Perot was bringing in his filing papers himself,” Helm stated, “Secretary Babbage invited Secretary Ehrler back, so we had an opportunity wo have a photo session, and I do have that photo of us with Mr. Perot.”
Since 5,000 signatures of registered Kentucky voters are needed for an independent Presidential candidate to appear on the Ballot, Helm says they had to go through the boxes of petitions Perot brought them. “We had to make sure that there were at least 5,000 signatures that had been collected, and that of those 5,000 signatures that the required information had been placed on the petitions.”
Although once every four years Kentucky does not have elections scheduled, Helm says those years are as busy, if not busier, than the other three years.
“Because you are preparing and planning for the upcoming three year of elections. Detailing any training manuals that you have, making sure that any everything is updated to reflect new legislation. So, it’s a year of work preparation and planning that does help you prepare for these big election years.”
She noted there have been a lot of changes since she arrived in the Secretary of State’s office over the years. “When I came in in 1988, modern technology was faxes. Not many county clerk’s offices had a fax, so it was Bremer Ehrler’s goal to ensure that every county clerk had a fax machine. And that occurred during that four-year period. The other modern technology when I first came into this office, was memory typewriters instead of computers. There was no email, there was no texting. Maybe we should revert back,” she chuckled.
Today’s technology she says, “Allows for military and overseas voters to receive their ballots electronically, thanks to Secretary Grimes.”
She also credits Grimes with allowing people to register to vote and update their registration online. “It has just been a phenomenon of positive forward progression through this office.”
Helm also says 9/11 and 2016 changed everybody’s life when it comes to election security. “It made us all aware of safety matters and securing our most precious documentation, which is the votes of citizens of our states and all other states.”
When asked about her retirement plans, Helm says, “I’m a very active person. I like being involved in community work. I’m not interested in travelling worldwide, but I do take trips with my family. Right now, I’m going to take the time to smell the roses and then think about what my next role might be in public service.”
She added, “I’m not one to stay at home and sit on the couch, I like to be up and out and about.”