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Article updated: 10/7/2013 3:19 PM

Lake County Clerk Helander won't run in 2014, cites changes to election laws

By Russell Lissau

Longtime Lake County Clerk Willard Helander won't seek re-election in 2014.

Helander, a Libertyville Republican, announced her decision Monday on social media and in an email to reporters. She's held the post since 1994.

Helander's decision comes a few months after state lawmakers stripped away the Lake County clerk's election-related powers and assigned them to a bipartisan commission. That legislation is being challenged in court.

Because of the legal fight, the commission hasn't been formed.

Helander didn't specifically cite the legislation in her five-paragraph announcement, but she did criticize lawmakers for the election laws they've passed.

"Today it has become extremely difficult to ensure that an election is fair and accurate," Helander said.

In a follow-up email to the Daily Herald, Helander criticized other state-approved elections changes, including efforts that allow people to register to vote by mail and that allow people to vote in the wrong polling place with a provisional ballot.

These and other changes diminish "accuracy, integrity and the ability to audit and verify the process," she said.

In her announcement, Helander thanked her staff for their work, as well as the "ordinary citizens" she's served as clerk.

A native of Brownsville, Tenn., Helander moved to Illinois in 1978. She worked as an attorney before seeking public office.

During Helander's tenure, the clerk's office has embraced technology to improve services. A variety of records, documents and forms are available on the clerk's website, and detailed election results typically are promptly reported online for anyone to see.

"She always has looked for innovative ways to bring technology into (the election process)," said Lake County Board member Pat Carey, a Grayslake Democrat.

Helander also oversaw the implementation of optical scan voting, an expansion of voting options for people with disabilities, early voting and other improvements.

Helander's work gained national attention in 2008 when, a month before Barack Obama's election to the White House, she announced her office had received an "unprecedented volume" of voter registration forms with fictitious or incorrect information.

One form had information for a local resident's dead goldfish, Princess Nudelman, Helander said. Her remarks were picked up by the national media and even "Saturday Night Live."

Helander also garnered attention when her staff denied a civil-union license to an out-of-state lesbian couple that wanted a ceremony here. The controversy led to a policy change in the office.

Helander had been courted by Republican gubernatorial candidates to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said. But Curran said Helander told him last week she wasn't going to run again.

He described Helander as a "watchdog for a fair process."

Once staunchly Republican, Lake County has shifted to the left since Helander first was elected. But Helander appealed to Republicans, Democrats and independents, said Bob Cook, leader of Lake County's GOP organization.

Retaining the seat will be tougher without Helander on the ballot, Cook said.

"Having her on the ticket always helped because she was so well-respected," he said. "It's going to be hard for anyone to step into those shoes."

Cook's Democratic Party counterpart, state Sen. Terry Link, couldn't be reached for comment.

Neither the GOP nor the Democratic Party has announced clerk candidates for the spring primary, which is March 18.

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