The controversy over voting and African-American electoral power in Ohio has entered a new chapter, with civic and civil rights groups complaining about billboards that seemed to be aimed at lowering Black turnout.
The billboards are appearing in largely Black areas in Cleveland, home to Ohio’s largest Black community. And they carry messages such as “Voter fraud is a felony” and that such an offense is punishable by three years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Ohio is a pivotal state in the Democrats hope of retaining the presidency for Barack Obama. The Black vote is critical in the state since African-American Ohioans are overwhelmingly Democratic.
The current controversy comes after a public outcry complaining about the Ohio secretary of state approving of longer voter hours in largely white, Republican-leaning counties and shorter hours in counties with larger Black and Democratic voters.
Many Black elected officials and civil rights groups insist that the billboards are designed to intimidate voters in poor and African-American neighborhoods. Labor groups like the AFL-CIO have called for the billboards to be taken down.
“Every election year we see offensive, underhanded tactics by groups who don’t want everyone to have access to the voting booth," said Arlene Holt Baker, the union’s executive vice president, and Pierrette Talley, the Ohio chapter’s secretary-treasurer, in a statement. "This year, intimidating billboards that point out voter fraud are appearing in predominantly African-American communities in Ohio, despite little to no evidence that voter fraud exists.”
The billboards are financed by a private family foundation whose identity has not been disclosed. They are owned by Clear Channel Outdoor.
Clear Channel, speaking to The Washington Post, said it erred by selling space on its billboards without including information on who was paying for them, a common practice in political ads. Nonetheless, the company said it would not remove the billboards.
“Honestly, it was a mistake of the specific sales person who agreed to that,” said Jim Cullinan, vice president of marketing and communications for Clear Channel Outdoor.
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