Two Republicans voted with Democrats Monday to reject a bill that would limit Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ power over the State Board of Elections.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, would have made the secretary of state a symbolic, non-voting member of the elections board and stripped her of any day-to-day authority over its staff. A substitute version of the bill considered Monday by the House elections committee would have let Grimes continue to access the state’s voter registration database but made it a misdemeanor to misuse the system.
Senate Bill 34 was approved by the Senate after an investigation by the Herald-Leader and ProPublica revealed Grimes, a Democrat, has obtained unprecedented control of the elections board, allowing her to push through a no-bid contract with a political donor’s company, have her staff search the state’s voter registration system for information about hundreds of state workers and political rivals, and allegedly intimidate and retaliate against the board’s staff when they complained about her actions.
On Monday, the secretary of state’s office mounted its first major public defense against the bill. Mary Sue Helm, a widely-respected elections official who has worked under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, testified against the bill and defended her office’s use of the voter registration database.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Helm denied that she did anything wrong. Documents viewed by the Herald-Leader and ProPublica showed that Helm had searched the voter database for information about House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, and former Democratic Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen.
“I have never, ever misused or abused any voter information for any purpose other than to fulfill my duties and responsibilities as a county employee and a state employee,” Helm said. “It is not a good feeling when you wake up in the morning and you see your name in the paper where it has been alleged that you misused voter data.”
She also spoke against parts of the bill that would limit Grimes’ authority over the State Board of Elections. Under the bill, Grimes would have remained the chief elections officer in the state, but day-to-day oversight of the board’s staff would fall to the executive director and assistant executive director.
“I believe that SB 34 provides less oversight and not more, with the State Board of Elections being wholly appointed by the governor,” Helm said.
If Grimes is in charge of the elections board, “the voters of all 120 counties have an opportunity to hold an elected official responsible.”
Her statement was enough to sway two Republican lawmakers on the committee to vote against the bill: Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and Rep. Scott Lewis, R-Hartford. All five Democrats on the committee voted against the measure, creating a 7-7 tie that sunk the bill.
“I’ve been here 23 years and I knew Mary Sue Helm before that,” Hoover said. “And in my opinion she has more integrity than anyone I know working in the Capitol and if she sees problems with it based on her experience, I cannot support it and I vote no.”
The vote sparked an angry reaction from Thayer, who said “this bill is not about Mary Sue Helm, this is about Alison Lundergan Grimes and the fact that she’s under three investigations. For those of you who voted no, it’s now on your hands that the integrity of voter rolls of this commonwealth are in question as we head into a major gubernatorial primary.”
He was cut off by committee chairman Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville.
The drama then spilled into the hallway in a confrontation between Thayer, R-Georgetown, and Matt Daley, a senior adviser for Grimes’ office.
At one point, Daley called Thayer “irresponsible” and said “you’re lying, you’re regurgitating lies.”
Thayer responded by calling Daley a “hack.”
Daley declined comment to the Herald-Leader, but later wrote on Twitter that he simply told Thayer to “conduct yourself with professionalism.”