Politics & Policy

When Political Speech Comes under Fire

Clear Channel is pulling down signs that say, “Voter fraud is a felony.”

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.”

Liberal groups are using fears of the first kind of disenfranchisement (being denied the right to vote) to provide excuses for why we shouldn’t worry about the second kind (having a legal ballot canceled out by an illegal one). Both varieties of disenfranchisement are wrong and need to be combated. But Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama who seconded Barack Obama’s nomination in 2008, highlights the prevalence of illegal ballots. He says that from his experience of watching rampant voter fraud in his state, “the worst kind of voter suppression going on today is the wholesale manufacture of ballots in African-American neighborhoods.”

Former Democratic senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut put it simply when he co-authored the Help America Vote Act in 2002: “We should make it easy to vote, and hard to cheat. We can do both.”

And exactly how would the Clear Channel billboards prevent anyone who is legally eligible to vote from going into a polling place? As Pam Fessler of NPR noted in her report on the controversy: “Even if the billboards are intended to intimidate, there’s no evidence such tactics work, that they don’t instead have the opposite impact.”

But they could prevent voter fraud in both registrations and voting, which is a real problem in both Cleveland and Milwaukee. In 2008, Cleveland was rocked by a scandal involving ACORN, the now-bankrupt liberal get-out-the-vote group. Thousands of its voter registrations turned out to be fraudulent or duplicates, and Mari Engelhardt, the group’s Ohio political director, had to admit to election officials that ACORN couldn’t prevent all the fraud happening under its umbrella.

Despite ACORN’s manifest incompetence and malfeasance, many liberal leaders sprang to ACORN’s defense back in 2008. Take Bob Edgar, the former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who now heads Common Cause. In 2008, he defended ACORN by saying “there are inherent problems in our current voter-registration system that depend upon citizen groups such as ACORN to hire temporary workers to register voters.” He then went on to attack the very concept of voter registration: “Many of you know registration was put in place by white males who didn’t want women and persons of color to vote.” In reality, voter registration in northern states such as Ohio was considered one of the hallmarks of progressive good government when it was instituted in the late 19th century.

But today, according to critics of voter-ID laws, conditions have improved so much that we need not worry about voter fraud — it’s an artifact of a bygone era. Voter registration is no longer error-ridden and problematic; it now works perfectly well. And many of the same liberals who defended ACORN and acknowledged “inherent problems” in voter registration are now attacking the voter-fraud billboards for broadcasting a problem than does not exist. This month, Edgar railed against “ballot bullies who are trying to scare folks away from the polls.” And, as Schultz put it in her column on the billboards: “In Ohio, to repeat: Voter fraud is a myth.”

The real myth in Ohio today is that people can exercise their free-speech rights and simply remind potentially errant voters that ballot fraud is a crime. The real “ballot bullies” at work in Ohio are those who would stifle debate and try to shut down any discussion of a serious public issue. Voter fraud and bureaucratic bungling could plunge us into another wrenching recount like the one we saw in Florida in 2000. That’s not in anyone’s interest, and taking steps to ensure the integrity and efficiency of our elections is necessary if we wish to avoid another electoral meltdown and protracted litigation in several close states this November.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO and a co-author of the newly released Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter Books).


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