Folks driving around Dayton and Cincinnati in recent weeks might have noticed billboards proclaiming, “Voter fraud is a felony!” and “up to 3 ½ yrs & $10,000 fine.” The billboards also came complete with a gigantic picture of a judge’s gavel.
Came? Yes, past tense, because the boards are going away. A self-purported voting rights group called Color of Change and several liberal Democratic figures pressured the ad’s owner, Clear Channel, to take them down.
According to National Review’s John Fund, their beef is voter suppression.
In the words of Cleveland City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland (yes, that is her name—I checked), the billboards were “intimidating and threatening.” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s wife, columnist Connie Schultz, described the ads as “the ghosts of Jim Crow.” According to Fund, Schultz wrote that the billboards’ “unwritten message” was “We will do anything to keep you from voting.”
Fund wrote that Color of Change had previously “urged advertisers not to buy time on Glenn Beck’s Fox News show.” And now, they’ve done the same to Clear Channel. Part of the gripe is that the ad’s sponsor is not listed, and even though Clear Channel initially sold the billboards that way, they now claim that doing so is outside of company policy.
This is just the latest in the Ohio Democratic Party’s, and their allies’, many attempts to accuse the Ohio Republican Party of voter suppression. Last year, Democrats successfully coaxed the GOP into removing a voter ID provision from an elections reform bill. Later, they strong-armed Republicans into repealing the entire bill. This year, after complaining that Republicans were extending early voting hours in counties friendly to the party while voting down similar extensions in heavily Democratic counties, Secretary of State Jon Husted issued a lawful directive making early voting hours uniform across the state. Regardless, Democrats cried voter suppression.
The idea is that voter ID laws and any law aimed at preventing voter fraud are veiled attempts to suppress voters who strongly support the Democratic Party, namely minority voters. By opposing Republican elections policy, Democrats are, thus, protecting the right to vote. Objectively, they would seem to be protecting their own votes, and if we accept their premise about the GOP’s intentions, then we have two parties jockeying for law that ultimately benefits each electorally.
Color of Change—and their Democratic allies—like to claim that voter fraud is a myth and merely an excuse to suppress Democratic voters in order to ensure GOP success at the polls. Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson said, “You’re more likely to get hit by lightning than to have in-person voter fraud.” Sen. Brown’s wife penned a column entitled, “Voter fraud is just a dark GOP fantasy.”
So is the GOP lying? Is the GOP merely using voter fraud as a reason to suppress minority Democrat voters?
Schultz’s own Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in 2008 that the now-defunct ACORN had pressured Cleveland-area voters into registering multiple times. Ironically, the Democratic Party cried foul over accusations of Republican voter fraud in 2004. They cited an electronic conspiracy whereby voting machines were rigged to deliver Ohio to President Bush. The Columbus Dispatch reported earlier this month that 3 Franklin County residents were charged with felony voter fraud for voting multiple times under slightly different names in 2010.
Examples of both likely and confirmed voter fraud are common throughout the rest of the country, as well. A famous instance from the 1980s was an extensive voter registration and voter impersonation ring in Brooklyn running from 1968 to 1982. A grand jury found that the fraud likely affected several elections, both federal and local. In the 1990s, fraudulent absentee ballots change the course of a local race in Greene County, Alabama.
In 2002, Democrat Tim Johnson defeated Republican John Thune for South Dakota’s US Senate seat. More than 40 affidavits indicated that Johnson benefited from votes influenced by “polling-place misconduct” (such as Democratic lawyers pressuring poll workers to accept questionable ballots) in a race decided by roughly 500 votes. One activist earned nearly $13,000 registering voters at $3 a pop—prosecutors later found 15 phony ballots from the activist. Other voters showed up to vote in 2002 only to be told that they had requested absentee ballots. The problem was that they had no recollection of doing so, meaning that someone voted for them.
One of the common points of those who dismiss concerns of voter fraud is that convictions are rare. Perhaps that is true, but you must be caught first in order to be prosecuted. Refer again to the individuals indicted in Franklin County last month. The Dispatch also noted similar convictions in 2007 and 2009 in the same county. Maybe voter ID requirements might have prevented many of these cases.
So voter fraud is clearly a present problem in almost all election cycles. The difference in opinion could be degree. Left-wing voter rights advocates claim that there is practically no problem and that doesn’t appear to be true. Right-wing voter fraud crusaders claim that it’s a massive problem. So perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle at least in terms of frequency.
However, it is notable that in almost all of the cases listed above, the beneficiaries of voter fraud appear to be Democrats. One plausible but cynical conclusion is that both parties’ maneuvering on this topic is, indeed, about enhancing their electoral chances. This conclusion would hold that Democrats do want to protect the ability to cheat in order to gain more votes while Republicans are trying to reduce and deter Democratic votes. The GOP has maintained that they only seek to protect the integrity of elections.
Still, a truthful ad that merely says voting fraud is a felony seems a pretty wimpy way of suppressing votes. In other words, it seems that Democrats and Color of Change are saying, “Don’t tell our voters than fraud is wrong, otherwise they might be less-inclined to cheat.” Clear Channel has nonetheless bowed to pressure, removed the billboards, and replaced many of them with another proclaiming, “Voting Is a Right, Not a Crime!” Fortunately, no one said voting is a crime. They’ve only been saying that fraud is a crime, which is true. Thus, while voting rights may not be under assault, after all, John Fund concludes that free speech is.