This month an unnamed private family foundation, apparently concerned with the integrity of elections, paid for 145 billboards in Ohio and Wisconsin. The boards featured a picture of a judge’s gavel and a simple message: “Voter Fraud Is a Felony — up to 3½ years and a $10,000 fine.” That’s it.
But liberal activist groups went into frenzy mode, claiming the billboards were part of a voter-suppression scheme. Beginning this week, the billboards’ owner, Clear Channel, will start to remove the signs. For a few days, Clear Channel had withstood the pressure, claiming it didn’t have the right to censor political speech. Then it claimed it “made a mistake” by signing a written contract to rent the billboards without forcing the sponsor to identify itself. Then it knuckled under completely by saying it would insist the sponsor either reveal itself — thus shifting all the protests and intimidation toward the sponsor — or remove the billboards. The sponsor declined to become a piñata, so the message will disappear. As penance, Clear Channel will donate ten signs of its own in the Cleveland area that read “Voting Is a Right. Not a Crime!”
This country has a long tradition of free speech and anonymous political commentary, starting with the Federalist Papers. How have we reached a point where political speech can be so muzzled?
The billboards went up in early October, but it took a while for liberal groups to notice them. Because many — but by no means all — of the billboards were in minority neighborhoods, Cleveland City councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland called the messages “intimidating and threatening.” Ohio columnist Connie Schultz, who is married to Democratic U.S. senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, called the billboards “the ghosts of Jim Crow” and claimed they contained an unwritten message: “We will do anything to keep you from voting.”
Color of Change, the group that in 2010 urged advertisers not to buy time on Glenn Beck’s Fox News show, began a petition campaign to pressure Clear Channel to halt what it called “one of the nastiest suppression schemes we’ve seen.” The bloody shirt of Bain Capital was even hoisted aloft by Ohio Democratic state senator Nina Turner, who pointed out that one of the owners of Clear Channel is the investment house that Mitt Romney helped found.
At the same time, none of the critics could claim that the billboard wasn’t factual. Voter fraud is a felony, and both Cleveland and Milwaukee, to name two cities, have seen their fair share in recent years. But Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, claims, “You’re more likely to get hit by lightning than to have in-person voter fraud.” Eric Marshall of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights warns that the billboards “attach an implicit threat of criminal prosecution to the civic act of voting.”
What? No one is suggesting people not vote. Disenfranchising anybody is wrong. But one can be disenfranchised in two ways: by being denied the right to vote, as happened in many Southern states until the 1960s; or by having one’s vote canceled out by someone who isn’t casting a legal ballot. In a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court case, Purcell v. Gonzalez, the court handed down a unanimous decision reinstating Arizona’s voter-ID law. The court stated: “Voter fraud drives honest citizens out of the democratic process. Voters who fear their legitimate votes will be outweighed by fraudulent ones will feel disenfranchised.”
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