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“Voter Fraud” in My Backyard

My father sent me the picture of the billboard you see here. He took it last Friday, just a few blocks away from the Cleveland projects where he grew up. There are more such billboards closer to the part of Cleveland where I was born, and others still in the area where I was raised. There are dozens of them throughout the city, concentrated in neighborhoods where minorities live.

Since they went up—not just in my family’s backyard but also other parts of Ohio and Milwaukee—the billboards have become a national controversy. While legislation aimed at suppressing minority voters twists its way through courts and state legislatures, the billboards seem an unusually direct attempt at voter intimidation. Republicans, meanwhile, greeted them with a shrug: What’s the harm in reminding voters of the law?

Indeed, the billboards do, at first glance, seem a bit misguided: Why not let conservatives spend their money warning about “voter fraud,” a crime that is practically nonexistent? And yet, on seeing the billboards, my first thought was of my cousin in Cleveland, who is an ex-felon. Having long ago served his time, he’s now an educated family man, the embodiment of what The Shawshank Redemption’s Ellis Redding called “rehabilitated.” I thought of him because the word on the billboards—“felony”—might be enough to keep him away from the polls. When you already have a record—as many people in these neighborhoods do—why run the risk of “voter fraud,” which, conveniently, the billboards leave undefined? I’m reaching out to my cousin because I want to know: Does he recognize these ads as a scare tactic, or is he just scared? I’d understand either emotion.

It isn’t a stretch to say that Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County won Barack Obama Ohio the last time around, and will be even more crucial this year. In 2008, President Obama won Ohio by just over 200,000 votes. He won Cuyahoga County by nearly 250,000 votes. His victory in Ohio wasn’t the last to be announced that November night, but it may have been the most politically significant, given that no Republican has ever won the Electoral College without claiming the Buckeye State. Now, The New York Times’ Nate Silver says Ohio is, by far, the most likely state to swing the 2012 presidential election.

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So it's no surprise that conservatives are looking for novel ways to suppress turnout in the Democratic bastion of Cleveland. One such effort—to close early voting in Ohio the weekend before the election—hit a brick wall at the Supreme Court this week. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted responded by shortening those early-voting hours.

Meanwhile, Husted has promised to investigate and prosecute any voter intimidation. I wonder if he’ll look into the “private family foundation” that put up these billboards with the help of Clear Channel, which told NPR that the “foundation” was allowed to stay anonymous in its contract “by mistake,” but that it won’t be taking them down. Well, make no mistake: ads like these aren’t a neighborly gesture warning fellow residents; they’re gunning strictly for the low-information voter. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently cited experts who claim approximately 16,000 ex-offenders live in Cleveland alone. And even those without criminal records will likely view the billboards warily. Many of these communities are similar to most American urban enclaves in that they live with police brutality, and thus are already suspicious of law enforcement, The mere association of voting with punishment may be enough to change the minds of would-be Obama voters. Voter confusion is the new poll tax.

Whoever paid for these billboards knew his or her audience – and is all too happy to disenfranchise it. If the citizens of Cuyahoga County don’t realize how much of a difference they can make on Election Day, these voter-fraud billboards make it quite clear that someone in a “private family foundation” does.

Jamil Smith is a producer for MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, airing weekends at 10am ET. These opinions do not reflect those of MSNBC.