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Sunday, August 11, 2013
Voter registrars are not a shy group of people. The election officials held their statewide conference in Roanoke last week and invited three local legislators to speak. Before the lawmakers could settle into their seats, they were asked when they planned to raise registrars’ pay.
How’s that for an ice-breaker?
I guess you have to be pretty assertive when it’s your job to referee tired voters, impatient politicians and late-night computer glitches. But registrars say they’ve actually been too meek about advocating for adequate pay even as their jobs have become more complex.
“It’s become a lot more technical,” said Roanoke County Registrar Judy Stokes. “We have to be IT people. We have to be accountants. We have to be PR people to get the information out to voters.” And she trains 240 officers of election as well.
The most recent examination of registrars’ duties and compensation was done by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in 1991. The number of registered voters in Virginia has grown from 3 million in the 1992 election to 5.4 million last year. Absentee voters have tripled over that period to 447,900 in the 2012 presidential election.
Registrars have seen a couple of pay adjustments during that period. When adjusted for inflation, though, their salaries are less than 2 percent above where they were in 1996, they say, and that raise doesn’t reflect the increased responsibilities they have absorbed or the growing pressure to produce instantaneous results on election night without a hitch.
They also note that their compensation falls well below that of constitutional officers, who are elected. For example, Botetourt County Registrar Phyllis Booze’s salary is $49,000, but the 2013 compensation for the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue is set by the state at $72,000 each.
Legislators said they sympathize with registrars’ pain.
“I don’t mind being criticized as long as you pay me,” said Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke.
He and Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, have both sought more funding for registrars. Both are members of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, but they haven’t been successful.
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who also participated in the discussion, said it’s hard to ask taxpayers to cough up more dollars in a weak economy.
“Everybody is so blasted jumpy about government at any level getting any more money,” he said. “When times are down, everybody has to tighten it up.”
Poindexter suggested registrars seek more money from cities and counties, but they already pay for office expenses and staff. Some also provide supplements to registrars’ salaries on top of the state funds.
Stokes noted that her total budget was nearly $373,000 last year, and the county was reimbursed by the state for just 18 percent of that amount.
The three lawmakers also warned registrars that they have to set priorities rather than drive to Richmond every winter with long wish lists.
“If it was between you getting a raise or getting new machines, which would you pick?” Ware needled the group. “Don’t answer.”
On a more conciliatory note he added, “I think you’ve been neglected so long you’re just going to have to take it one step at a time.”
You’d think that politicians would be keen to make sure elections run smoothly, but in reality the state has long under-funded the underpinnings of democracy. The legislators admitted that registrars just get elbowed out of the way by other interest groups in the scramble for state funds.
“The whole issue is one of sales,” said Head. “That’s the job, to sell members of the legislature on your position.”
“It’s the way the system works,” Ware added. “Ya’ll need to remind everybody how important a job you do. . . . You’re registrars, but you’re also voters. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t vote for people who won’t listen to you.”
Last week, at least three legislators were listening. But, as Dana Martin, chairman of the Roanoke County Electoral Board, reminded the registrars, legislators are like wheelbarrows.
“You worry they might be easily upset, but they work best when pushed,” he said.
Nuckols is editorial page editor ofThe Roanoke Times.
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