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Published: Friday, 10/19/2012

Scary signs

Dozens of billboards have appeared in Cleveland, Columbus, and other cities across the country. They warn that voter fraud is a felony punishable by a $10,000 fine and as much as 3½ years in prison.

The signs’ message is true. The apparent intent is despicable.

Most of the billboards are in black neighborhoods. According to Mother Jones magazine, others are in Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods.

This suggests that the intent of the billboards’ anonymous author was to make minorities fearful that their right to vote would be denied, and that they could be fined or jailed. That would be an understandable response among people who have been harassed, fined, jailed, and denied their voting rights in the past.

Clear Channel Outdoor rented the billboards to a “private family foundation.” It blames a salesman who agreed to a contract that allowed the foundation to remain anonymous. But the company won’t take the billboards down — nor should it — because they express speech protected by the First Amendment.

Clear Channel says it’s working with the affected communities, but doesn’t say how. The company also says that billboard locations were chosen for “maximum saturation,” not because of the racial profile of the neighborhood. That claim is harder to credit.

Nearly 70 percent of voters in Cuyahoga County voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Billboards reportedly also have appeared in African-American (and Democratic-voting) suburbs of Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Scaring even a small number of voters away from the polls this year could spell the difference in a presidential race that could be decided by a few thousand votes in Ohio.

There is little evidence of voter fraud anywhere in the United States. There is no evidence that fraud is more likely in African-American neighborhoods.

Voters everywhere — Republicans, Democrats, third-party supporters — should respond to this attempt at voter suppression by turning out in record numbers to exercise their franchise. When they do, they will put to shame the members of the private foundation who were too cowardly to attach their names to their billboard message.

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