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.
“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.
“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.”