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.

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

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.

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.

In a Facebook posting Tuesday, Norton Outdoor Advertising said, “The family foundation purchased the displays not to make a political statement, but rather to make the general public aware of voting regulations.” The company said the billboards were being removed after it was agreed that the public “sentiment regarding the displays is contrary and detrimental to the intention of the advertising campaign.”

Norton, which was responsible for 30 billboards in Cincinnati, was made aware of the controversy by a handful of city council members and Ohio State Rep. Alicia Reece, a Democrat. A woman answering the phone at the company’s headquarters said the company had been receiving “threats” before the announcement. She declined to give her name, citing company policy. According to the Facebook statement, the billboards will be removed “as soon as possible.”

On Monday, Clear Channel Outdoor dismantled 30 billboards in Cleveland, 30 in Columbus, and 85 in Milwaukee, according to the company.

Jim Cullinan, a spokesman for Clear Channel Outdoor, said in an e-mail to CNN Monday that the company “reviewed the situation, and in light of the fact that these billboards violate our policy of not accepting anonymous political ads, we asked the client how they would prefer to work with us to bring the boards into conformance with our policy.”

Because of the anonymity of the billboards, it is difficult to confirm the link to a particular political party, although data show that low-income voters traditionally favor Democrats at the polls.

Nathan Conrad, communications director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, says the state party has “no connection” to the billboards as it takes voter fraud and suppression “very seriously.” Mr. Conrad said he assumes the anonymous organization targeted Milwaukee because it is the largest city in the state, which makes it desirable when “trying to get the message out as broadly as they can.”

In late August, a federal judge overturned the Republican-led General Assembly vote that would have denied early voting on the final weekend and the Monday before Election Day, a period when nearly 100,000 Ohio voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election.

The state does not have a voter ID law, which requires photo identification to vote. Last month in Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court denied hearing an appeal to a lower court’s ruling that struck down a similar ID law.

Supporters of voter ID laws say they protect the integrity of elections, while critics say they disproportionately prevent minorities and the elderly from voting.

Arnwine says there is little to no data that shows voter ID fraud played any role in a US election.

“The reality is, from a practical vantage point, if you want to steal an election, voter impersonation fraud is not going to do it because it’s ineffective and inefficient,” she says, because of the long lines at the polling places and the likelihood of getting caught.

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