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Government and Politics

Cleveland Councilwoman says Clear Channel may provide free billboards to counteract signs warning of voter fraud
Protesters still say signs are to intimidate black voters and should come down

Kevin Niedermier
Protesters under a billboard on Cleveland's east side warning of harsh penalties for voter fraud. The signs are considered by many to be an attempt to suppress the black vote.
Courtesy of Kevin Niedermier
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A compromise may be in the works following outrage over billboards erected in predominately black neighborhoods in Cleveland and other cities. The billboards warn that “voter fraud is a felony,” and list criminal penalties, which people like Cleveland councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland says is an attempt to intimidate black voters. After protests this week, Cleveland says the company that owns the billboards is considering providing free billboards with a different message. And WKSU’s Kevin Niedermier reports that's just one of the many reactions to the message.

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One of the 10 billboards, featuring an ominous gavel, appeared last week at the corner of East 35th and Community College Avenue on Cleveland’s eastside.  Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland immediately protested.  But she says the signs also have led to a stepped-up effort to educate residents, including telling them they can vote even if they’ve been convicted of a felony. And during a rally under the billboard, she said she’s also talked with Clear Channel, the company that owns the signs.

Free “positive message” billboards offered                                              

“I have had some opening conversations with Clear Channel, and they’re offering free billboards to put a more positive message or antidote. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said the answer to bad speech is good speech, so we’re going to explore that opportunity. And let people know voting is a right not a crime.”

Protesters still want original signs torn down

Cleveland gave no details, but says the company has told her the billboards could be up as early as next week. Clear Channel officials have not answered to questions about the free billboard offer. But it has said a private family foundation contracted for the original billboards, and, contrary to its usual practice, the contract included a guarantee of anonymity for the group. Meanwhile, protesters under the sign are considering other actions.

“We want that sign taken down, you will not win this election with an unconstitutional gesture designed to disenfranchise poor people, black people, and if you don’t take it down we’ll take it down for you.”

State Sen. Nina Turner of Cleveland attended the rally. Even if there is an offer of free billboards, she says the voter-fraud signs should still come down. Turner says the billboards are part of the tenor of this election.

“In the state of Ohio ex-offenders have the right to vote, but what they’re doing is trying to confuse voters. So between signs like this and a Secretary of State who’s trying to erode early voting we get this kind of stuff. We know that most African Americans, especially in Cuyahoga County, participate in early in person voting. The types of policies coming from the Republican Party has created this type of environment and made people like this believe it’s okay to prey on black and poor and Hispanic communities.”

Same billboards popping up in other cities

The same billboards have also gone up in Cincinnati and Milwaukee. This week, the Washington-based voting advocacy group, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, sent a letter to Clear Channel calling for the signs to be removed.                                                                                                    
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