RALEIGH -- In June of last year, State Auditor Les Merritt urged state lawmakers to delay voting on a bill that would allow voters to register closer to election day.
Merritt, 56, a Republican in his first term in office, told legislative leaders that his agency was examining problems with state voter rolls. A preliminary review questioned about 25,000 voter registrations.
State election officials, though, ultimately showed that Merritt's shop didn't have a very firm grasp of election law, that most of his "questionable" registered voters could easily be explained.
For example, 17-year olds identified as illegally voting had in fact voted as the law allowed: They voted in primaries but turned 18 before the general election. "Dead voters" had died before election day but after casting absentee or early votes.
Beth Wood, Merritt's Democratic opponent in his bid for re-election, has been hammering Merritt with the episode, saying he's lost an auditor's most important attribute -- credibility.
Wood, 54, worked in the auditor's office for 15 years, the last few as director of training. She resigned last year to take on her old boss.
"He is a partisan auditor," she said in a recent interview. "He's broken the credibility of the auditor's office."
Wood also accused Merritt of wasting time on other partisan efforts -- including a battle with the State Ethics Commission -- when he could be conducting more audits that save taxpayer money.
Merritt acknowledged that he made mistakes in the review of voter registration rolls and now regrets contacting legislators before completing the review. But he said that his office was simply trying to "follow the numbers" to determine whether a problem existed.
As a Republican auditor examining mainly Democratic-controlled state agencies, charges of partisanship are to be expected. When you push, people push back, he said.
"It's a shoot the messenger thing," he said.
Merritt touts a number of improvements made during his tenure, including decreasing a backlog of investigative audits and putting more resources into performance and investigative audits.
(The bulk of the work by the state auditor's office are financial audits of state agencies -- straightforward reviews of agency revenues and spending. Performance and investigative audits are intended to uncover waste, fraud and inefficiencies.)
Merritt has also called for more internal audit functions within state agencies as a way to prevent problems before they start, a proposal that legislators have endorsed.
Wood is correct when she talks about the importance of an auditor's credibility. An auditor without credibility is like a guard dog without teeth.
Auditor recommendations don't carry the force of law. At best, they can cause a prosecutor to take up the audit findings and file criminal charges in cases of fraud.
Far more often, audit reports serve as a way of embarrassing governors and state agency officials into stopping wasteful practices. Without credibility, proper embarrassment becomes more difficult.
Of course, it's up to voters to decide who has the credibility here -- Merritt or Wood.