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Voter fraud warning on billboards: meant to inform or intimidate?

Nearly 200 billboards are being taken down in the swing states of Ohio and Wisconsin. Bearing the warning 'Voter Fraud is a felony,' they were posted mainly in low-income minority neighborhoods.

By Staff writer / October 23, 2012

A billboard located at the intersection of Triskett and Lorain, in Cleveland's west side, is pictured in mid-October.

Tyler Behm/Reuters

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Nearly 200 politically themed billboards in the Nov. 6 battleground states of Ohio and Wisconsin are on their way down this week following a public outcry that they promote voter suppression.

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The billboards were posted earlier this month across largely low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio, and Milwaukee. They said, “Voter Fraud is a felony! Up to 3-1/2 years and a $10,000 fine” and featured a picture of a gavel.

While critics say the billboards were intended to scare minority voters from the polls, one billboard company said the aim of the campaign's backer was to make the public "aware of voting regulations."

Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington, says many voters in the neighborhoods where the billboards were posted were likely to become confused at the wording of the message, assuming former convicted felons are not allowed to vote, which is not true.

The billboards are “targeting people who have no idea what voter fraud is. So when they see over three years of jail time and a $10,000 fine, which is the annual budget for many of their households, they are more prone to stay home. So you’re scaring people to death,” Ms. Arnwine says.

Little is known about the organization behind the billboards other than they are funded by a “private family foundation,” according to Clear Channel Outdoor, the New York City-based outdoor media company, which, along with Norton Outdoor Advertising, headquartered in Cincinnati, is responsible for the majority of the billboards. Both companies declined to offer further details, citing company policy regarding clients who purchase political advertising, but said they are being removed at the request of the client.

Voting rights and fraud have been the subjects of many state battles across the nation in 2011 and 2012. Because most statehouses have Republican majorities, the party has been at the forefront of passing laws that require photo identification at the polls, restricting early voting, and redrawing electoral maps.

Many of these new laws have been introduced in battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas, where they have ended up in federal court. Florida, another battleground state, was embroiled in a tug of war with the federal government over the use of a federal database to purge the voter rolls of illegal immigrants. At the same time, conservative groups aligned with Republican candidates have challenged existing voter laws, saying more restrictions are needed to prevent widespread voter fraud.

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