Update (10÷22÷12): The anonymous sponsors agreed to remove the billboards after Clear Channel, under pressure from activists, gave them a choice of disclosing their identity or taking down the ads. “Voter fraud is a felony. Up to 3 1/2 yrs and $10,000 fine,” reads a billboard that has gone up in Black and Latino neighborhoods in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. Voter fraud is as rare as lightning strike deaths, but voter intimidation has been becoming more and more common—in the form of misleading television ads, poll watching, early voting laws, and now, billboards. To the uninformed, “voter fraud” sounds like a dire threat to free elections, which makes it a perfect smokescreen to mask attempts at voter suppression. Clear Channel, a subsidiary of Bain Capital, owns the billboard but disavows the message, claiming they are not responsible for the language. The billboard was anonymously funded by “by a private family foundation.” The company has rejected billboard ads on other grounds in the past.
Eric Marshall of the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights comments, “[The billboards] send a pretty strong message, and a very dissuasive message, that is not good for our democracy.” Cleveland City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland told Ohio political blog Plunderbund: “This is blatant voter intimidation. A direct attack in the heart of African-American community meant to scare people and keep them from exercising their right to vote.” Apparently, voter fraud is considered less of a threat in the predominantly white Harris County in Texas. A billboard there, donated by Clear Channel in a partnership with the county clerk and commissioner, informs voters the dates of early voting in the state. With the partnership, Lee Vela, Clear Channel Vice-President of Public Affairs, seeks to up voter turnout. The billboards “will generate more than 3.8 million viewers each week for a total of more than 15 million viewings before early voting starts.” Al Sharpton comments on the billboards popping up in Milwaukee and Cleveland during a segment on Politics Nation: “In Wisconsin, 23 cases in 11 million votes cast in 7 years and in Ohio, only 5 in 14 million votes cast in 8 years. We know what [the right-wing] are trying to do. And we won’t let them, and we won’t let them. It’s your RIGHT to vote. Don’t be afraid. Stand up and be counted. Don’t be afraid to use your vote. With the things that are at stake from Medicare, to Medicaid, to Social Security, you should be afraid not to vote. Stand up. Be counted.” A petition on ColorOfChange.org demands that Clear Channel immediately take down the billboards: http://act.colorofchange.org/sign/billboards