Ohio Sees Fierce Fight Over Voter Rolls

Ohio could be the deciding factor for who wins the White House, and the fight over voting rights is fierce.

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President Obama in Columbus, Ohio.

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Just weeks before the presidential election will be decided in their backyards, billboards with the words "Voter Fraud is a Felony" started popping up in some of Columbus and Cleveland's poorest, minority neighborhoods. The billboards depict a judge's gavel and the sentence for committing voter fraud—up to three and a half years in prison.

"There have not even been allegations of voter fraud in these neighborhoods. Why now? Why in these places?" says local Cleveland councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland. "If you want to put out a general message on voter fraud, why not put them on a major highway where you are going to get a good cross section of traffic?"

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Signs like the ones hanging over Cleveland are an example of alleged voter intimidation efforts happening all over the state and are geared toward keeping minority voters from the polls, councilwoman Cleveland says.

"My residents take it as a threat somehow that if they exercise their right to vote, they may get in trouble," she says. "I am in no way endorsing voter fraud, but I believe the intent here is to keep people in their communities, in my community from exercising the right to vote."

The billboards are owned by Clear Channel Communications, a subsidiary of Bain Capital since 2008, but the group who purchased the space on the billboards has remained anonymous.

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According to National Public Radio, Clear Channel has no intention of taking the billboards down. However, it is working with councilwoman Cleveland to run PSA billboards that say "Voting is a right."

A coalition of civil rights groups also announced Thursday it would launch a $35,000 billboard campaign to compete with the signs.

The billboards are not of great concern to everyone in the state. Matthew Henderson, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party, says the reaction to them has been overblown.

"This year people have more options to vote than ever before. We have almost more days to vote than any of our surrounding neighbors," Henderson says. "The folks who do have problems with it are trying to make politics out of it."

The signs serve as a reminder of just how much is at stake in the Buckeye state. Both presidential candidates have traveled to the state more than a dozen times and have dropped a combined $93 million in advertising there.

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"Normally you see those sorts of dirty tricks in the last few days before an election day," says Edward Foley, the director of the election law program at Ohio State University. "These things are happening now much earlier because of the early voting environment."

This week the U.S. Supreme Court denied Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted's request to limit early voting in the final days leading up to the election, a big win for the Obama camp who had sued over the issue.

Experts say that in 2008 roughly 100,000 ballots out of more than 5 million were cast in Ohio in the three days proceeding the election. Early voters tended to be the elderly, lower income residents, and minorities.

But there is more happening in Ohio than legal battles over early voting.

Husted, a Republican, says Ohio is preparing for November as if the weight of the election rests on the state's shoulders.

"We are an important swing state and therefore are always aware and try to be prepared for activity that we expect to see from activist groups on both sides," Husted says.

One group, the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, has taken an active role in digging into the state's outdated voter files, identifying potential voting fraud.

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The Ohio Voter Integrity Project is an offshoot of True the Vote, an advocacy group who says its mission is "to bring integrity back to the voting process."

True the Vote trains volunteers to work as poll watchers, raises awareness of voter fraud and double checks existing registration lists.