Billboards warning that voter fraud is a felony punishable with up to 3-and-a-half years and a $10,000 fine have been popping up in predominantly black neighborhoods in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. The ads are a blatant attempt at voter intimidation, say community leaders in Cleveland, where the signs were first noticed.
“There’s no other explanation for it,” said local councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland. “Particularly to put a sign like that in a black neighborhood like this? There’s been no evidence of voter fraud in this community that I can ever remember.”
Ohio is one of the most hotly-contested swing states in this year’s presidential election. Nearly 70 percent of voters in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, voted for Barack Obama last time around. The state has seen partisan feuding around elections procedures such as early voting and the counting of provisional ballots marred by poll-worker error, but does not require voters to show photo ID.
Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, says the ad is protected by the First Amendment even if it’s perceived as racist, and would have to contain a specific threat to a defined group in order to be classified as criminal voter intimidation or harassment.
Another civil rights group, The Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights, based in Washington, sent a letter to Clear Channel, the owner of the billboards, asking that the ads be removed. The letter said that the ads “stigmatize the African-American community” and “attach an implicit threat of criminal prosecution to the civic act of voting.”
A spokesperson for Clear Channel said that messaging was the responsibility of the advertiser, which is only identified on the sign as “a Private Family Foundation.”
If you see one of these ads, let us know by posting in the comments below or tweeting a photo and the location to @MoyersStaff.