Dianna Duran, New Mexico's secretary of State who took office in January, sounded a tad pugnacious in March when she reported that 117 foreign nationals with phony Social Security numbers had registered to vote and 37 had cast ballots in elections.
There was, she said, "a culture of corruption" in the state.
Duran, who had ordered her staff to check 1.16 million voter registration records against motor vehicle and Social Security databases, also raised eyebrows by referring 64,000 voter registration records to the state police, citing irregularities.
No one has been charged with a crime, and Duran, a former Republican state senator and county clerk, has since taken fire from Democratic legislators, public interest groups and news organizations that say she has overstated her case, scared voters and withheld proof of her claims.
Duran maintains that she is just doing what she was elected to do. "I am simply adhering to the promise I made to voters all over the state," she said in an interview.
"My concern is she is creating fear and causing people not to go to the polls and suppressing the vote," said state Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat and co-chairman of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, whose members grilled Duran during a public hearing July 15.
"She wants to clean up the voter rolls — that's a good thing," Wirth said. "But using the state police creates a perception of wrongdoing."
Duran's disclosures prompted reporters and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico to file open-records requests for details of her investigation. Duran eventually released heavily redacted documents, citing executive privilege for withholding most of the information.
The ACLU sued Duran on July 20 to release more information.
"The major issue is transparency," said ACLU managing attorney Laura Schauer Ives. "Without it, elected officials are able to act in a shroud of secrecy."
The Albuquerque Journal, which had endorsed Duran's candidacy, accused her of hypocrisy in an editorial: "To gauge her progress so far, all they can do is read between her pages and pages of redacted lines."
Duran's move to scrub the voter rolls reflects a national GOP preoccupation with preventing illegal voting, said Denise Lamb, a former state elections director and a registered independent.
"All over the country there is a movement by predominantly the Republican Party to get voter ID laws passed," she said. "On their side, they say it's about fraud — election fraud at the polls is virtually undetectable and you have to do this."
But Democrats contend that requiring a driver's license at polling places tends to discourage voting by seniors who have given up driving, students, minorities and the homeless, Lamb said.
Lamb doubts illegal voting is widespread, calling it "a low-yield felony." She recalled a single documented example of a noncitizen voting during her 10-year tenure with the elections bureau. It involved a Russian scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen and had mistakenly voted in a school election.
Duran denies discouraging anyone from voting and says her comments have been misconstrued. As the first New Mexico secretary of State to cross-check the databases, she was merely following the example of 42 other states, she said.
Duran acknowledged that the "vast majority" of irregularities found in the database cross-checks had probably resulted from routine errors made by county clerks while entering information from handwritten voter registration cards into the computer system.
In New Mexico, one of two states that permit undocumented residents to obtain driver's licenses, clerks routinely offer voter registration forms to patrons at motor vehicles offices in compliance with federal motor-voter laws, Duran said.
It's possible that some who are ineligible to vote may have inadvertently filled out the registration forms with the other paperwork. "It may not even have been their intention to register when they should not have," she said. "I have never asserted there have been huge numbers of people attempting to vote."
Duran declined, on her lawyer's advice, to discuss the ACLU lawsuit or her broad claim of executive privilege in withholding records, but said she was confident the controversy had not damaged her credibility.
Lamb, who has known Duran for years, called her "basically a very decent public official," adding, "I think it was inartful communication."