Color of Change, the nation's largest online civil rights organization, is taking on media heavyweight Clear Channel over billboards that the advocacy group claims are attempts at voter intimidation.
Recently, anti-voter fraud billboards have sprung up in swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, depicting a gavel and informing passers-by that voter fraud is a felony, punishable by up to three and a half years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. Although the billboards state that they were funded by a "private family foundation," Color of Change's executive director Rashad Robinson believes Clear Channel has a responsibility to remove the ads, and has started an online campaign in an effort to force them to do so.
Robinson told The Huffington Post, "For us, these billboards, they create a culture of fear. They've only been put up in black and brown neighborhoods, so these are not widespread billboards. They are targeting certain communities, and they're creating a fear for people going to the polls."
Robinson also took issue with the anonymity of the billboard's buyer. "These billboards were funded by an anonymous donor. So unlike the work of Color of Change, when we send out a petition or do a rally, when we take out an ad, people know exactly who paid for it. They know what we stand for, they know who we are," Robinson said.
Clear Channel, which owns the billboards, was purchased in 2008 by Bain Capital, the company founded by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
In an email to HuffPost, Jim Cullinan, vice president of corporate communications for Clear Channel Outdoor, said, "Clear Channel Outdoor does not comment on our advertisers' ads. We are committed to ensuring that ads, including political ads, posted on our billboards have the appropriate disclaimer so this situation doesn't happen again in the future." He explained to HuffPost that the advertiser's contract stipulates anonymity.
He told the Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel that the billboards currently appear at 85 locations, and that the company does not intend to take them down.
In Wisconsin, community organizations have rallied in opposition to the billboards, citing them as the latest effort to suppress the vote.
"Voter rights are under attack every which way possible," Mike Wilder, director of the African-American Round Table told the Wisconsin Journal Sentinal.
HuffPost's Trymaine Lee reported this week on the same signs appearing in Ohio neighborhoods, where critics feel the ads were strategically placed to intimidate potential voters. Ohio is among the swing states that have passed restrictive voter laws, and it recently had its elimination of early voting days reversed when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the Ohio secretary of state.
Demographically, the voting age populations in the Ohio neighborhoods where the signs were placed are 96 percent black, 88 percent black and 76 percent black -- a stark contrast to another ad that appears on a Clear Channel billboard in Harris County, Texas, where the message is to "vote early." The population of Harris County is 57 percent white.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has also sent a letter to Clear Channel demanding the removal of the billboard ads and has appealed to the public to do the same.
Between now and the November election, Color of Change plans to hold rallies to pressure Clear Channel to remove the ads.
"The petition was just the first step for us," Robinson said. "There will be a lot of work involved to make sure that Clear Channel and Bain are held accountable, that they know there are consequences for this kind of voter suppression."