Written by: Lee Zurik, Chief Investigative Reporter
Contributor: Tom Wright, Investigative Producer
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE/WAFB) - You would not be alone if you acknowledged that you don't know who your registrar of voters is.
"Who my who… what?" responded one person we asked.
Every parish has a Registrar of Voters. But it's hard to find someone who can name one of them.
For such a little-known position, it draws some surprisingly tough talk from one top state official.
"Forget all the hogwash you've heard from these people," said Secretary of State Tom Schedler at a recent legislative committee hearing. "I ain't backing down from this one."
Registrars of Voters do much as their name implies: they register people to vote, maintaining lists of eligible voters in a given parish. Their other main job is to run early voting. And those duties earn some registrars six-figure salaries.
Last year, Elaine Lamb in East Baton Rouge Parish made $109,879; Melissa Bouryogne in Iberville Parish made 90,520; Delmas Taylor in Livingston Parish made $95,172, Robert Poche in Ascension made $104,904 and Stacy Ryan in West Baton Rouge Parish made $87,768. The state's highest-paid registrar of voter, or ROV, is in Shreveport, Caddo Parish - Ernie Roberson earned $183,000. That's more than the governor ($130,000), the Mayor of Shreveport ($105,000) and or even the Caddo Parish sheriff ($137,072).
"They do make much more money than I make," Schedler tells us. "I make $115,000 by constitution, like every statewide elected official."
Schedler is the state's chief election officer. He oversees all elections in the state. And as secretary, Schedler can be voted out of office every four years.
But a registrar of voters is not elected. The position was created in the early 20th century as an appointed, non-political overseer for the state's voter rolls. So parish governments have appointing authority. Once appointed, the law makes it difficult to remove them from the job. As Schedler puts it, they're basically appointed for life. But West Baton Rouge Parish Registrar Stacy Ryan disputes that saying registrars can be removed from office by the State Board of Election Supervisors if there is found to be willful misconduct or failure to perform duties. She says registrars can also be recalled, just like elected officials.
"It would be like you being… could never be fired," Schedler says. "And your producer … you can imagine the difficulty there."
Schedler says there is no other position in state government in which the official is basically appointed for life.
At work, you may get evaluated by your boss. But your registrar of voters gets to evaluate him- or herself. Each year, each one has given themselves the highest score, "Excellent." And as long as they receive that "excellent" score, they are eligible to get a pay raise. State law allows for two pay raises every year, up to a 7-percent increase in pay per year. Ryan says that is based on funds being available. And, she says, Registrars have only received raises in two of the past five years.
"We all would say to our bosses we're doing a great job and should be paid more money," Schedler says. "I mean, that's human nature. I'd say the same thing about myself."
But is that good for taxpayers? "Not good for taxpayers at all, and I think that's the point," Schedler tells us. "And I know of no other system in state government that allows that."
The state pays part of the registrars' salary; individual parishes handle the rest.
"Something's got to be done with this," insists Schedler, who has been the lone voice for reform on the issue.
During elections, registrars of voters even can earn overtime. The ROV in Caddo Parish, who made $184,000 last year, brought in $5,300 of that in overtime. There are not many people with such six-figure salaries that can make overtime, in Louisiana and elsewhere.
According to an old copy of the state constitution, the clerks of court in each parish used to handle voter registration. But that changed in 1921, when the state created these 64 ROV's.
"A law from 1921 with very little amendments and changes to it – I think it's time to change that," Schedler says.
Schedler has been able to toughen some oversight. Whenever he wanted to fight one of those ROV self-evaluations, appeals used to go to a committee made up entirely of ROV's. Now, Schedler has some appointees on the board.
"We have a select few that are protecting the goal line," Schedler says of the registrars. "And I understand it. Maybe if I was one, I'd be protecting it, too. But there are people that are saying, 'Tom, you're doing the right thing, this is wrong, keep it up.'"
He acknowledges that many registrars actually do a good job. "Even some of my soothsayers, I think, do a good job," he tells us."
But it's the lifetime appointment, the self-evaluation and the built-in pay raises that have him fighting. "This is unheard of in the private sector," he insists.
Cameron Parish has a population of 6,692. Their ROV makes $76,838.68 a year – that's $11.48 per resident. In Tensas Parish, the ROV makes $80,000, or $16.11 per resident.
"If you look at some of these small, rural parishes, it's not a bad living," Schedler says.
He tells us it's up to the legislature to crack down. "You got to do this globally," he tells us. "I think people need to sit down in a study committee for a year. Cooler heads have to prevail. We need to bring everyone to the table and try to come up with some new voter registration law and the process and procedure, how it should be handled going forward."
Because of the way the law is written right now, many of these ROV's have a six-figure salary for life - and when they leave the job, many will get that same six-figure compensation in retirement until the day they die.
Are registrars of voters the last bastion of old Louisiana politics? "Think about it: appointed for life, two raises a year," Schedler says. "Just like we had seven assessors in New Orleans for decades... I mean, to a certain degree it is."
West Baton Rouge Parish Registrar Stacy Ryan sent the following response to WAFB:
It is important to know that the press statements that Registrars are "appointed for life" is not accurate. Title 18 and Title 31 of the Election Code explains the procedures for removal from office. Basically, a Registrar is subject to removal by the State Board of Election Supervisors, a seven person Board with only one member being a Registrar, for willful misconduct relating to his official duties as well as willful and persistent failure to perform his duties only after the Parish Council votes to send a resolution to them. Also, Registrars are subject to recall just like elected officials.
Self-Evaluation of Job Performance by Registrars
The Secretary of State's rules for Merit Evaluation for each Parish Registrar under Title 31 Section 107 states that "the Secretary of State designates the Director of Registration in the Department of State to conduct the annual evaluation of each Parish Registrar by reviewing the completed evaluation and data submitted by each Registrar. The evaluation will consider the timely performance of the Registrar's job responsibilities as required by Title 18 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes." For most 2014 evaluations, Registrars' submitted literally 100 pages of supporting documentation. Upon completion of the rating of a Registrar, the Director of Registration submits the evaluation to the Commissioner of Elections for review and either approval or disapproval. The Commissioner of Elections can either approve or disapprove of the rating given. The Registrar's evaluation is then submitted to the Department of the State Human Resources Office. If the Registrar receives an "Excellent" rating, the Registrar is entitled to a "step increase" if funds are available. In the past three years, Registrars of Voters and their chief Deputies received raises in only one of those years and only on the state portion. In the past five years, Registrars and their staff received raises in only two raises in those years.
Large Salaries Paid to Registrars
The salary ranges and pay schedule of Registrars of Voters is based on a 12 Step Plan in 18:55 and five population groups as spelled out in 18:59.2. No change in salary can be made without legislative approval. A salary supplement is provided by law in 18:56 and paid by the Parish Governing Authority. In addition many Registrars are certified as an Elections and Registration Administrator which authorizes a supplement as appears in Title 18:59.4.
Many Registrars Retire with 100% of their Salaries as a Retirement Amount
Yes, but only if a Registrar retires with 30 years of service. Lesser service results in a reduced retirement. All full time public employees in both state and local service is eligible for retirement benefits.
Method of Appointment
The method of appointing a registrar is spelled out in Title 18:51. Registrars are appointed by the Parish Governing Authority. Registrars' are one member of a board of five Parish Board of Election Supervisor's. The other four members of the Parish Board are the Clerk of Court, The Parish Democratic Committee Chairman, the Parish Republican Committee Chairman and one member appointed by the Governor of the state of Louisiana.