Zurik: Jobs for life at the ROV

Zurik: Jobs for life at the ROV

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - You wouldn't 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.

"Guggenheim!" mentioned one Jefferson Parish resident, likely referring to Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer.

"No clue," admitted another resident.

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."

In Jefferson Parish, Dennis DiMarco is the registrar of voters. Dwayne Wall is St. Tammany's registrar, while Sandra Wilson holds the office in Orleans Parish.

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, Dwayne Wall in St. Tammany made $122,000; Sandra Wilson in Orleans, 126; in Jefferson Parish, Dennis DiMarco made $161,000. 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 appointed for life.

"It would be like you being… could never be fired," Schedler says. "And your producer … you can imagine the difficulty there."

When we disclosed some of our findings to the residents we spoke with, many voiced concerns.

"I don't think I like any lifetime appointments," one woman told us.

"Even the president is not set for life," said another.

Schedler says there is no other position in state government in which the official is 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 get a pay raise. State law allows for two pay raises every year, up to a 7-percent increase in pay per year.

"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.

In March, he told lawmakers that it's time to change the law. "It needs to be straightened up," he said. "I'm not scared of them, and you shouldn't be either."

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 guaranteed 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."

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