WASHINGTON -- It's been two decades since Michigan voters elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate, but the GOP is working to end the drought with November's election.
The party's hopes are pinned on Terri Lynn Land, who is gaining ground on Democratic Rep. Gary Peters in the race to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. While Land uses her tenure as Michigan secretary of state to bolster her Senate campaign, her record on voting rights in that job may put her at odds with left-leaning Michigan voters.
The story began in 2005, when Land, who took office in 2003, set out to clean up Michigan's voter lists to prevent election fraud. The programs she established prompted aggressive measures, and a judge later found some had violated federal law.
Land, citing more than 800,000 names on file with registrations dated prior to 1998, but with no voter history, launched an initiative to remove inactive voters from Michigan's qualified voter file. The move was announced as largely an effort to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act, a federal law intended to overhaul the process of holding elections.
"While there is no evidence of wrongdoing involving these files, it is imperative that we further reduce the potential for fraud," Land said in a press release at the time.
The programs required local officials to scrub their voter lists of individuals who had died, changed their names or moved out of state. Land used $361,000 in Help America Vote Act federal funds to cover the local cost of mailing new voter ID cards.
Democrats were concerned from the start. Mark Brewer, then chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, warned that clearing the voter lists would wind up "disenfranchising legitimate voters, particularly those who are Democrats, or those who are African-Americans and other minority groups."
Land insisted the program would not target specific groups and would equally affect rural and urban communities. The following year, her office touted deleting about 169,000 obsolete voter records from the rolls.
Land's voter removal programs hit a roadblock in the 2008 election year. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged some of her administration's aggressive tactics in a federal lawsuit in September, arguing that "hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters" may be prevented from casting their ballots in the presidential election that November.
Under one program, local clerks were required to nullify newly registered voters whenever their original voter ID cards were returned by the post office as undeliverable. A federal judge ruled that October that the practice violated the National Voting Rights Act and ordered state officials to immediately halt the action and restore the names of 1,438 people removed from the rolls that year.
A New York Times report published that same month cast greater scrutiny on efforts in key swing states to purge voters from the rolls. Michigan was among the states examined by the newspaper, which charged that "tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law."
The article stated that in Michigan, officials violated federal law by removing voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election -- a practice only permitted when voters die, are declared unfit to vote, or notify authorities that they have moved out of state.
Even within the scope of what was permitted, the numbers did not add up. During one of the periods the Times examined under Land's voter purge program, about 33,000 voters were removed from the rolls, even though 7,100 deaths took place in the state during that time and 4,400 people had moved out of state.
Land's office disputed the accuracy of the report, arguing their records showed significantly fewer voters had been removed from the rolls. The Times pointed out that the problems were not unique to Michigan, and that states with Republican and Democratic election officials had struggled to interpret new federal laws, such as the Help America Vote Act.
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Land's Senate campaign, made a similar point when reached for comment.
"Terri has a proven record of making government work for the people as Michigan's Secretary of State," Swift told The Huffington Post in an email. "While implementing new federal regulations, many Secretaries of State across the nation, from both parties, were forced to navigate sometimes unclear federal requirements. In the end, Terri's work expanding services, lowering costs and improving customer service to the tax payer proved to provide long-lasting reforms to the department and has resulted in fair and accurate elections in Michigan."
Land's campaign has focused on attacking her Democratic opponent over Obamacare. The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity has launched a million-dollar ad buy knocking Peters for supporting the health care law and for leading Michigan voters to believe they could keep their health care plans.
Such attacks are proving fruitful, with Land holding a slight lead over Peters in polls -- although at this stage many voters are still familiarizing themselves with the candidates. Democrats said they hope showing aspects of Land's record as secretary of state will contrast with the rosier picture of her tenure painted by her campaign.
Land highlights her two-term tenure, which ended in 2011, on her campaign website, noting that she was responsible for "rooting out fraudulent activity."
The Washington Examiner's Rebecca Berg reported Tuesday that Michigan "became a hotbed of identification fraud" under Land's watch, and that her administration was unaware when some officials accepted bribes in exchange for fake IDs.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the amount of time that has passed since Michigan elected a Republican senator.