NEA and coalition counter voter intimidation in Ohio, Wisconsin


By Amanda Litvinov

A coalition of nonpartisan civil rights and voting rights groups and the National Education Association is working to put a stop to a jumbo-size voter suppression scheme being carried out on billboards across four cities in the battleground states of Wisconsin and Ohio.

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More than 145 billboards bearing intimidating messages such as “VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY! Up to 3 ½ years & $10,000 fine” with an image of a gigantic wooden gavel have cropped up in predominantly African-American and Latino communities, as well as areas with large student populations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and three cities in Ohio: Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.

Clear Channel Outdoor, the company that owns the billboards in all of the locations except Cincinnati, indicated over the weekend that it would remove the threatening signs after the coalition led by Election Protection and Common Cause launched an awareness campaign that included a local and national media push and a counter-effort to put up 30 voter billboards supporting voter rights.

But, as with any case of bullying, only time will tell just how much damage was already done.

Milwaukee activists respond to voter intimidation message.

“I think it’s very interesting that Clear Channel is taking these billboards down now, less than two weeks out from the election,” said Tiffanie Lawson, a kindergarten teacher from Milwaukee who drives by one of the bullying billboards on the city’s north side on a regular basis.

“What good is it going to do except try to save face for their company?”

Clear Channel Outdoor, an affiliate of the Clear Channel media conglomerate owned by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital since 2008, claims a salesperson mistakenly sold the billboard spaces to an anonymous “private family foundation,” going against company policy. According to multiple news outlets, the anonymous foundation chose to remain in the shadows rather than go public.

Lawson says she was disgusted to hear that the billboards had spreading to other Midwestern cities, but not shocked, because she first saw the billboards and many other tactics meant to discourage voters in her hometown before Wisconsin’s recall election in June.

“First there was redistricting, which obviously was done to benefit a certain political party. Then during the recall election—and I won’t be surprised if it happens again come November 6—there weren’t enough ballots in inner city Milwaukee, and there weren’t enough voter registration forms, either. And then there’s the Ohio voter ID law. Even thought it was struck down, it has added to the confusion,” said Lawson.

“Groups I work with, including the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, are trying to get the word out that the voter ID law was stopped, but our opponents are doing everything they can to get people in the inner-city especially not to vote.”

Much of the same has transpired in Ohio.

“This just goes to show how extremists will use any means necessary to win this election, and will even go as far as intimidating voters out of exercising their right to vote,” says educator and Ohio Education Association President Patricia Frost-Brooks.

The counter-effort, which includes this billboard, works to support all voters’ rights.

“They’ve put entire systems in place to try to accomplish that by passing restrictive voter laws and shortening early voting periods. And we have to undo those systems to ensure that there are fair elections that give us the chance to put the right people at all levels of government for our educators and most importantly for our students,” she said.

“As a minority community leader, this gets me to my core. But it’s collective action that makes a difference—just like the coalitions coming together to fight these voter suppression billboards.”

More than 35 counter-billboards, the first of which were activated last Thursday, posted in the same communities where the bullying ones were erected tell the community “When We Vote, We Are All Equal,” and offer the toll-free number of a nonpartisan voter hotline voters can call with questions about voter registration, ID requirements, and election procedures.

“We want voters to know that we have their backs,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “We expect the ballot bullies who are trying to scare folks away from the polls will step up their efforts as Election Day approaches; we’re determined to make sure people aren’t intimidated and that every eligible citizen can exercise their right to vote.”

Arizona teacher and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel says that Clear Channel has set the right example, but the company running the bullying billboards in Cincinnati needs to step up. NEA has signed onto a letter from Election Protection and more than three dozen other groups asking Norton Outdoor to meet with Election Protection and members of the affected communities to better understand how the billboards discourage minority voters.

“We’re calling on Norton Outdoor to follow Clear Channel’s lead,” said Van Roekel. “We need to say it loud and clear—dirty tricks and intimidation will not be tolerated in our electoral process.”

“This is a broader agenda than what we thought it was,” said Frost-Brooks. “We’re trying to help connect the dots, but educators simply have to keep aware of what’s going on and not underestimate their standing in their communities and that they can make a difference just by talking to people,” she said.

“Our students’ education is at risk and the quality of public education that our professionals deliver every day is at risk. Supporting all voters’ rights and getting out the vote is what we’ve got to do.”

Reader Comments

  1. Would it be OK if the NEA had open elections and let the rest of us volte on who would be your leaders? Kind of defeats the purpose of belonging to a group if anyone who wants can determine your leadership and thus direction. The Obama campaign is using the Florida election fiasco of the Bush Gore election to tell everyone less than 600 votes determined who was president. EVERY vote should be legitimate and verified.

  2. I am often perplexed as well by the challenge of one obtaining a government issued ID, when after a charmed life of growing up white in a medium socio-economic community, that I can easily locate a birth certificate, get a driver’s license, or present a bill with my home address on it. But the more I speak to low socio-economic families in urban and rural areas, the more I begin the comprehend the challenges of those over the age of 65 who were born in states outside of hospitals, so never received a birth certificate–many of who are African Americans. Those college students registered for the first time who suddenly are asked to present an ID which shows their home address rather than their campus address, who are hours if not days from their homes where they are registered, and will not have an opportunity to vote near their homes, and then be turned away at the polls where they attend college. And, those low socio-economic citizens who do not have a driver’s license, and never will. Or, what of those registered recent immigrants who have difficult time with the language—as did most of our ancestors when they arrived, and then these recent immigrants see the billboards and begin to feel fear for themselves and their family members based on these threats about them voting on election day.

    Maybe we should spend more time speaking to those who are concerned about these new voter suppression techniques and ask why they experience fear, rather than relating our limited and fortunate life circumstances to others wondering why they don’t share our confidence about voting.

    Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes . . . it can be revealing and an education in itself.

    Dave F. Brown, author of WHY AMERICA’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE THE BEST PLACE FOR KIDS available in all formats at

  3. The law states that you have to be a legal resident of the United States, and a resident in the state in which you vote; you also have to be over the age of 18. So I guess I do not understand why asking for identification to prove these requirements is a horrifying infringement on voter rights. How do we guarantee that there is one vote cast by a legal US citizen otherwise? How do you prove that you live in the place you are voting? I don’t understand the backlash against providing some sort of identification. Heck, you have to provide ID to buy beer, but people object to an ID to prove who you are so you can legally vote? Really?

    Why does this billboard offend so many? Why is it seen as intimidation? Voter fraud IS a felony – that’s a statement of fact. Why is NEA on the band wagon insisting that this is a horrendous violation of voter rights? If you are not registered in a district, you can’t vote there; if you are not a citizen, then you cannot vote in a US election. If you try to vote knowing you do not meet the requirements of the law, then it IS fraud.

    Am I missing something here?

    1. Why are these billboards placed only in minority or college neighborhoods? Once you have registered (having shown your ID or place of residence) isn’t that enough?

    2. Yes, you are missing something. It’s not about the factual accuracy of the statement on the billboard. It’s about targeting at specific groups of people that you don’t want to see vote because they would vote against you, as opposed to neutrally placing them everywhere. There’s a difference.

    3. Andrew, I would challenge that – not every resident in largely minority or college neighborhoods will vote “against” the purported candidate in question – some are actually very conservative. So no, I’m not sure that’s it either; perhaps on the surface, but the argument doesn’t hold water.

  4. NEA,
    If you are in favor of equality, why are all your articles in support of a liberal, left wing agenda?

    I don’t understand how a billboard, stating factual law, can be interpreted as racist voter intimidation by seemingly vicious white people who greedily desire political power over the poor minority population. NEA is ridiculous to me.

    I wish I could pay my dues to my state association and NOT be affiliated with NEA. The articles are always so politically charged! I care way more about teaching my students than all this political junk.

    Make the main thing, the main thing.

    1. Chris, I support NEA’s stance against voter intimidation that is racist in nature and designed with one goal: gaining political power. Keep in mind that investigation after investigation, including one conducted by the U.S. Justice Department when George W. Bush was president, has found voter fraud to be essentially nonexistent. Further keep in mind that the voter fraud laws are pushed exclusively by state Republican governors and legislators who themselves have been unable to document instances of voter fraud. And look at which people are at greatest risk of losing the right to vote: minorities, students, and inner-city residents. It’s no coincidence that these groups rarely vote Republican. Finally, look at where the billboards were placed, which is to say, they were not in white Republican communities.

    2. I agree. NEA (the National Education Association) should be out educating people how to become a legally registered voter. Then people, regardless of race, can be intimidated.

    1. (to the one who ended with “duh”) What a totally uninformed comment! You don’t have a clue!
      Voter intimidation includes not only the billboard situation, but redistsricting to throw weight to certain parties and time frames that exclude young people (often college students) from voting in their home districts because they’ve been at college. I’m sure my mind isn’t devious enough to think of other things that they are currently planning. Too bad evil enters the equation in a “free” country.

      1. When it comes to redistricting, that comes down to the last census that was taken and it can change again with the next census depending how many people move into and out of different districts.
        When it comes to college students voting in their home districts, that depends upon where the student registered to vote. When I was in college, they did not have early voting booths open on Saturdays (I have a son who will be voting today who goes to college in another state,) but they did have and still have absentee voting ballots for those who cannot make it home. This is how many military personnel have to vote who are stationed overseas (one son in marines today.)
        Again, both of your “intimidation tactics” come down to why can’t the National Education Association making a strategic effort to educate people about the voting laws and time frames for voting. If it is the young voters that are going into college that you are concerned about, why not make it a goal that the rights and procedures behind voting requirements be taught in that required, high school senior course called “American Government.” Better yet, have the Student National Education Association on college campuses set up booths to educate incoming freshman during registration/fee payment week of the fall semester.
        Instead of complaining, come up with a practical solution to educate and assist.

    2. It is intimidation to target these billboards only at certain neighborhoods or groups of people, as if accusing those groups of being criminals, without any basis for it. That is what is going on here.

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