General registrars will get higher salaries, but will have to wait on a new pay scale

By: - February 28, 2019 5:01 am

A poll worker in Richmond holds an “I Voted” sticker. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Most days, Charles Garratt is the only person in the Bath County registrar’s office, processing voter registration applications, making sure all the technology is up to date and training other people. 

“Back in the days of paper ballots and wooden boxes, there was less to do,” he said. “Now the job is highly technical.”

General registrars get raises when other state employees do, but the position is still tied to a pay scale determined by population that hasn’t changed in decades.

The Voter Registrars Association of Virginia said the pay model for registrars hasn’t changed since 1976, when there were fewer election laws on the books. Since then, responsibilities of registrars in state code have multiplied, the association found. 

Registrars’ duties include assisting candidates; voter registration; absentee voting; making sure polling places are created and staffed; assigning voters during regular and other redistricting cycles; and election security.  

The state reimburses municipalities for salaries of certain local positions like the general registrar and constitutional officers. Localities have the option to add more to the salary and must offer those positions the same benefits as other employees.

The state determines those salaries by population, and the first pay tier for registrars is tens of thousands of dollars less than treasurers, clerks of court and finance directors like commissioners of revenue and treasurers. 

Registrars in Virginia are promised a base pay that ranges from $46,468 a year up to $90,525 a year in localities with more than 200,000 people. That cutoff means only about a dozen localities in the state qualify to pay their registrars the highest state salary.

In localities with 150,000 to 200,000 people, the salary for registrars drops to $68,491 a year.

In this year’s budget, lawmakers approved a 2 percent state employee pay raise that applies to registrars as well as an additional 3 percent raise only for registrars, which will cost the state $139,611. 

There was also language in the budget that will require a comparison of registrar salaries to that of constitutional officers, which include sheriffs, local treasurers and commissioners of revenue. 

“While the money is nice and will have a direct long-term impact for me, it’s getting the conversation to the point where all the communities in Virginia can attract young professionals who make this a professional career,” said Garratt, who will retire soon.

The Joint Legislative and Review Commission studied general registrar salaries in 1991 and found registrars’ work wasn’t similar to constitutional officers, though a survey distributed to registrars at the time showed that the registrars themselves felt the job was similar.

The JLARC study said, instead, that registrars were similar to other state jobs that primarily dealt with record-keeping.

That’s no longer the case, said Garratt, whose predecessor’s primary job was processing voter registration paperwork with a typewriter.

“For so long, the people in the local communities — the electoral boards, the registrars and the staff — have made the system work no matter what,” Garratt said. “It would be hard for me to just sit down and list everything that has to be done and when it has to be done.”

Several lawmakers put in budget amendments this year to provide more money for general registrars, including Sens. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg.

All the senators estimated it would be a $3.5 million task, except Vogel, whose amendment is for $2.5 million to bring registrars in line with treasurer pay.

On the House side, delegates Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, and Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, both put in $3.5 million amendments to pay registrars the same amount as treasurers.

None of those amendments were included in the final budget.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.