Longtime Iberville Parish Registrar of Voters Melissa Bourgoyne retires after 32 years
Melissa Bourgoyne has left the building.
For as many people who knew Bourgoyne as an avid Elvis Presley fan, a few more knew her for her job as Registrar of Voters.
Now, she’s only the Elvis fan.
Bourgoyne recently retired after 32 years as Iberville Parish Registrar of Voters, a job she started just before her 23rd birthday.
She said it was a tough decision – almost now or never.
“My daughter got married in December, and I figured it was the best time. After 32 years, I felt maxed out,” said Bourgoyne, 54.
Chief Deputy Holly Wille, a Grose Tete resident, is serving as acting registrar until the Iberville Parish Council votes on a replacement.
It’s been a quiet transition, but it wasn’t that way in 1990.
Tie votes that year by the 12-member Iberville Parish Police Jury left the post unfilled after Eunice Albert retired.
After several deadlocks on the vote, two members abstained on the final attempt, which gave Bourgoyne the job.
“It was kind of surprising,” she said. “The night I got the job, I got very few congratulations … it was chaotic.
“They took everything out of the office, and I had no keys,” Bourgoyne said.
The tumultuous start did not get easier.
She did not have employees or supplies. At the same time, Bourgoyne had to preside over fall elections, reapportionment and the start of the 911 system, which required a change in addresses throughout the parish.
“I had to get it together and get it together quick,” she said. “I didn’t get much help from the courthouse.”
Then-state Commission of Elections Jerry Fowler was reluctant to get involved because of the controversy.
William Dupont, her former employer, stepped forth to help her.
“The entire process at the start was unpleasant,” Bourgoyne said. “I don’t have one picture from the night they appointed me … it would’ve been nice to have an appointment picture.”
Nat Bankston, then-Registrar of Voters in East Baton Rouge Parish, stepped up to help. He also sent two employees who trained her so she could begin her job.
“Nat was very instrumental,” Bourgoyne said. “If not for him sending people to train me, I don’t know what I have done.”
The help pulled her through the stormy start.
“Nobody stopped to realize that I was a young girl afforded an opportunity,” she said. “There was no political mission or a big plot … I was offered a job opportunity and I took it.”
In the years that followed, Bourgoyne saw the entire electoral process change.
It went from shades and circles to hanging chads. Now, everything is touchscreen and controlled by a mere push of a button.
Early voting has also brought big changes. It went from a six-period –only a half-day on Saturday – to cycles of 8:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. five days a week for weeks, and the same schedule for two Saturdays.
Through the years, she has served on the state Board of Directors for the Registrar of Voters Office and several committees. Bourgoyne also graduated from Auburn University’s Professional Education Program, and was a Certified Elections and Registration Administrator.
The job brought its share of challenges.
Close races brought their share of difficulties.
“They always kept us on edge,” she said. “Thank God the technology has progressed so much over the years … recounts are so easy now.”
The pandemic also had its share of potential pitfalls.
“We had positions for everything to accommodate it … it was tough, but everything was needed.
She credited Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso for his efforts to keep voting precincts safe during the pandemic.
“He went above and beyond with sanitizing, and we were lucky that he did that,” Bourgoyne said. “We still have boxes of items they’d send to pull it off (sanitizers, masks, gloves, etc.).”
The 2020 Presidential Election also brought its share of challenges amid a pandemic.
“I’d still take that any day over a hot sheriff’s race or hot parish government race,” she said.
Bourgoyne points to the aftermath of the 1996 U.S. Senatorial race between Republican Woody Jenkins and Democrat Mary Landrieu as perhaps her toughest time in office.
A federal court ordered Registrars of Voters offices statewide to provide photocopies of all public records as part of the challenge Jenkins made against Landrieu’s close victory.
“We had three people doing that, and we were working until 4 a.m. to do that,” she said. “East Baton Rouge swap out and go home and sleep when another shift came in, but we didn’t have enough employees to do that.
“I remember being totally exhausted, and people from Woody’s office, Bourgoyne said. “I was thinking I’d never survive this job.”
Even with the hardships the job has posed over the years, it’s tough to leave.
“I talked and visited with people daily for 32 years,” Bourgoyne said. “They become your family.”
She may step in to help during elections. But she also hopes to enjoy her first grandchild, who is due in November.
Many of those friends would want to see the Elvis Presley collection she had in her personal office.
It started with a picture and a few personal items. Through the early 32 years, it developed into thousands of items – including his dental records.
“So many items in my vast collection came from people who would come in to do early voting,” Bourgoyne said.
She plans to make more trips to Graceland, which she visits several times a year.
“Working there isn’t off the chart yet,” she said.
On her last day, she wore a special T-shirt.
It read “Elvis Left the Building” – with “Elvis” crossed out and “Melissa” in its place.
“I sported it proudly,” Bourgoyne said. “It’s been a great, great career.”