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Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson


Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Translation: "This election, if you've got it, show it."

Early this month, a federal judge partially overturned Pennsylvania's voter ID law, ruling that the state couldn't require voters to show photo identification at the polls until after the 2012 election. But the ruling has not stopped the state from running ads suggesting otherwise—ads that have disproportionately targeted urban and minority communities that tend to vote for Democrats.

In English, the billboard pictured above reads: "This election, if you've got it, show it." It is one of 58 billboards erected by Pennsylvania's Republican-led Department of State, mostly in Democratic-leaning Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Though Latinos make up only 6 percent of the state's population, about 20 percent of the billboards are in Spanish. Similar Spanish-language ads appear on public buses.

Voter Fraud Billboards in Ohio Target Minorities

In Ohio, possibly the decisive swing state in this year's presidential race, 10 billboard ads around Cleveland warn in big block letters and exclamation points that voter fraud is a felony punishable by up to three and a half years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

That might seem like an odd way to spend election-year advertising money, given that in-person voter fraud is less common than UFO sightings. Yet evidence suggests that the creators of the billboards, who identify themselves only as a "private family foundation," care less about voter fraud per se than scaring away certain voters from the polls.

In 2008, nearly 70 percent of voters in the county that includes Cleveland cast ballots for Barack Obama. While that on its own might suggest a partisan motivation behind the billboards, a closer examination of their locations indicates something worse: a calculated effort to target Democratic-leaning racial and ethnic minorities.

In this map of Cleveland, created by Eric Fischer using 2010 census data, each dot represents 25 residents. Red dots are Caucasians, blue dots are African Americans, orange dots are Hispanics, green dots are Asians, and yellow dots are members of other racial and ethnic groups. I've added stars to indicate the locations of the billboards. As you can see, all of the stars are in areas that are either mostly black, or, in the case of the inset, significantly black, Asian, and Hispanic:

Location of "VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY!" billbords in Cleveland Eric Fischer/Josh HarkinsonLocation of "VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY!" billboards in Cleveland Eric Fischer/Josh Harkinson

"When you have the words 'felony,' 'voter,' and 'fine' all the the same message, and by placing it where it is, the only message that you are intending to send is that this is a threat to you if you vote," Cleveland Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland told the Plain Dealer (see video below). "It's just a blatant attempt to keep people in this community, particularly black people and poor people, from voting."

UPDATE: Readers report seeing the same billboards in Madisonville, Ohio (a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Cincinnati) and in Oak Creek and Souuth Milwaukee, blue-collar areas in Wisconsin.

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