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Voter Fraud Billboards Stir Controversy


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later, if you are still coping with the aftermath of that major storm that battered the East Coast and could use some help talking to the kids in your life about it, we'll have a conversation with the editor of Scholastics Classroom magazines about how her publications talk about frightening things in a way that kids can understand. That's just ahead.

But, first, more on the race for the White House. The election is just days away, now, and a lot of the news and a lot of the action is focused on getting eligible voters to the polls. And, as you might remember, throughout this election season, there have been many controversies around measures that a number of states have instituted to ensure that only eligible voters do go to the polls.

Now, supporters of these measures say they're necessary to ensure that the vote has integrity. Opponents say they are just really part of an effort by Republicans and Conservatives to keep Liberals and Democrats from voting.

Well, there's a new controversy along those lines, and that involves some controversial billboards that have hung up or have been hung for weeks in certain neighborhoods in Cleveland, Columbus and Milwaukee. The signs read: voter fraud is a felony, followed by an exclamation point. The signs included information about the penalties for voter fraud, including prison time and fines.

Those billboards have since been taken down because civil rights groups, among others, protested that this was really about trying to frighten minorities from voting. Brian Bull has been covering this story for member station WCPN in Cleveland and he's with us now.

Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

BRIAN BULL, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel. Great to be back.

MARTIN: So when did these billboards go up and when did it become, you know, a thing?

BULL: Well, across Ohio and Wisconsin last month, in early October, nearly 200 billboards popped up. As you described, they had the voter fraud is a felony warning. They sported an opposing gavel and also listed a $10,000 fine and up to three and a half years in prison as the consequence.

And, no sooner had these appeared than many civil rights activists, minorities leaders and ex-felon advocates began pointing out that they were largely concentrated in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, in poor, inner city areas of Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

They were sponsored by what was then on the billboard labeled as a private family foundation and no other information was given, who was behind these billboards. This placement and the fact that they appeared in the final weeks before the election made many critics regard it more as an act of voter intimidation.

I went out to a few of the sites where the billboards were here in Cleveland. I talked to a few residents. A couple that I met on the very first day they appeared said that they were very sure that anyone who had a record would probably be scared off from voting because of it. Very quickly, Michel, though, in Ohio, anyway, a person serving time can vote upon release. And, in Wisconsin, an ex-felon can do so upon release and satisfying all requirements for serving time, parole and probation.

MARTIN: So you think - so that is what gives occasion to this argument that - because the argument on the other side is, if you are eligible, why would that stop you from voting? Why would you care? And so your argument is that - or not your argument, but the argument of the critics is - well, let me just play a short clip from somebody who you spoke with. You spoke with Cassandra Collier-Williams. She's African-American. She's running for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge and this is what she had to say about that.

CASSANDRA COLLIER-WILLIAMS: If I put a billboard up that says voter fraud is this and that and you can get this many years or whatever, some people, even though they have no fraudulent intent, they may be intimidated to think, I don't know. I mean, can I vote? Can I not vote? Am I supposed to be at the right place? And they may feel that it's just easier not to vote at all.

MARTIN: So what about the people who put the billboards up? I understand, as you said, that they were initially anonymous, but their identity has since been revealed. What do we know about them and what do they say about what their motivation was?

BULL: Yes. There was a joint investigation by the African-American division of NBC News called The Grio and an activist group, One Wisconsin Now. And they revealed that the anonymous buyers of these 175 billboards were a Milwaukee couple named Steven and Nancy Einhorn. Steven Einhorn heads Einhorn Associates. That's an investment firm that advices specialty chemical companies. He's also principle of Capital Midwest Fund, a venture capital firm. He has an extensive background in investment banking, mergers and management buyouts, and studied chemical engineering at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and also was on the board of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

His wife Nancy Einhorn is alternately described on campaign donation reports as either unemployed, a homemaker or an executive at Einhorn Associates. She's on the board of the Milwaukee Ballet and the Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. She also has a testimonial on the Fund for American Studies website, where she openly declared that she was donating all of her social security checks to one of its student scholarships...


BULL: ...a fund for American studies.

MARTIN: What do we draw from all of that information, Brian? What do we draw from that? What do we - what are they saying?

BULL: They have a very extensive - they have a very extensive background in supporting conservative political groups. They've sent money to the Republican National Committee, FreedomWorks for America PAC, which has backed candidates such as Indiana senatorial hopeful, Richard Mourdock, and our own Ohio State Treasurer here, Josh Mandel, who is in a fierce senatorial race with the Democratic incumbent, Sherrod Brown. And they also gave $50,000, over four years, to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, including during his recall effort and several thousand to Tea Party candidates, one who replaced Russ Feingold in 2010. So people would look at this and say that this is a very conservative record of support.

MARTIN: So they say that they placed these - they issued a statement. They have not been giving interviews, at least not to our knowledge, at least. Apparently, they gave an interview anonymously or a statement to a conservative media outlet, but they issued a statement saying that they placed these billboards as a public service because voter fraud, whether by Republicans or Democrats, undermines our democratic process and by reminding people of the possible consequences of illegal voting, we hope to help the upcoming election be decided by legally registered voters.

Well, it does beg the question, which the critics raise, which is why, then, were these billboards only placed in certain neighborhoods and not others. And also, was there any evidence that this kind of fraud that they are concerned about actually occurs? And what's the answer to the...

BULL: One of the most outspoken critics here was Ohio State Senator Nina Turner. And she and Cleveland Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland - they rallied long and hard against these billboards since they popped up and they say that they took issue, one, with the placement. They also took issue with the fact that these were anonymously purchased by - from Clear Channel and a Cincinnati advertiser, Norton Outdoor Advertising.

And Turner cited an investigative report - I believe it was News 21 - that looked through, I believe, elections going back to the year 2000 and over almost a decade's worth of elections, nationally. Found only seven cases of documented voter fraud and none were part of a grand conspiracy to defraud the polls.

MARTIN: So the...

BULL: So they - they're - go ahead.

MARTIN: Go ahead. So you're saying that this is based on, not a lot, of facts. What were the billboards - the billboards eventually came down. Why did they come down?

BULL: Clear Channel said that it had learned that - because it violated one of its own policies. They said that anonymous political advertising violated its own company policy and that they should come down now. State Senator Turner was quick to point out, though, that in 2010, a very similar crop of billboards popped up in Milwaukee, also by the quote, unquote, "private family foundation," so she's not entirely buying that explanation.

As far as the Cincinnati outdoor advertising company went, they said that they listened to the concerns from residents and some of the civil rights activists and people such as State Senator Turner and declared that these billboards were not in - not giving the best proper impression and so they decided that they were not appropriate and that they should all come down.

MARTIN: And I also note from your reporting that the Cleveland City Council purchased some other billboards saying voting is a right, not a crime. So, Brian, we'll have to see whether these billboards actually - what effect that they actually had. Did they have the effect of actually keeping people from the polls or getting them to the polls? And you'll have to keep us posted on what happened there. Brian Bull is...

BULL: I certainly will.

MARTIN: All right. Brian Bull is a reporter for member station WCPN in Cleveland. He joined us from their studios. Brian, thank you.

BULL: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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