April 17, 2014

Elyria
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Voter fraud billboards have local officials concerned

LORAIN — Billboards erected in Elyria and off West 21st Street in Lorain have residents talking, and Lorain and Elyria city leaders said the signs were placed to scare minorities from voting this November.

The billboards, which read, “Voter Fraud is a Felony! Up to 3 ½ YRS & $10,000 fine,” were placed near the corner of Lexington Avenue and West 21st Street in Lorain and off East Broad Street in Elyria, areas that have traditionally been occupied by a higher number of minorities.

Lorain Councilman Eddie Edwards called the billboards “scare tactics” to discourage minority voters from going to the polls.

Elyria Councilman Marcus Madison said residents have already spoken with him about the signs. Now, city officials are doing damage control to get voters out to the polls.

“It’s disappointing to see signs like that when we should be encouraging people to vote,” Madison said.

Similar billboards were placed in predominantly Latino and African American communities in Cleveland during the past two weeks, and the Election Protection Coalition is fighting back in those areas with its own billboards — asking resident to “Stand Up and Have Your Say — VOTE.”

According to National Public Radio, 60 of the controversial voter fraud signs have been placed in Cleveland and Columbus and 85 in and around Milwaukee. The billboards are paid for by a “private family foundation” on structures owned by Clear Channel Communications, which will not say who doled out the cash.

“Clear Channel Outdoor doesn’t comment on our advertisers’ campaigns,” said Jim Cullinan, vice president of communications for Clear Channel Outdoor. “It is our policy to require advertisers, including political advertisers, to have disclaimers which identify them. Unfortunately, policy was not followed in this case. We will do all we can to ensure it does not happen in the future.”

Cullinan added that the views of its clients don’t necessarily align with the company’s beliefs.

Jeanine Donaldson, executive director of the Elyria YMCA, said the billboards are misleading in that they portray voter fraud to be a much larger problem than it is.

According to the Census Bureau, about 649 million ballots were cast in general elections between 2000 and 2010. But just 70 people were convicted of federal voting crimes — five for registration fraud — between 2002 and 2005, according to the Department of Justice.

Donaldson said “on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with them,” but the signs are another jab at minority voters, who have had to fight for the opportunity to vote. She said, however, that she feels the sign will actually encourage these voters.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has already registered 1 million voters for this election, said Elyria NAACP President Betty Moody-White, who added that 300 unregistered voters were registered this year in Lorain County.

Moody-White said it’s important for people to know that if a person convicted of a crime served his or her time, they can vote.

Edwards said he and other city leaders will be at the Board of Elections providing some information to voters. He said he has not seen discouragement among minority voters.

“Don’t worry about the billboard,” he said. “If you get out and vote, then the people that bought the billboards will have wasted their money. The minority is much stronger than that.”

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.