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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

In the battleground states of Ohio and Wisconsin, dozens of billboard ads have popped up in urban areas. They note that voter fraud is a crime punishable by up to three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine. And it's not clear who bought the ads.

As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some civil rights groups believe they're meant to intimidate voters who lean Democratic.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The billboards began appearing two weeks ago: eighty-five of them in and around Milwaukee, another 60 in Cleveland and Columbus. The signs say in large, white letters: Voter fraud is a felony, followed by an exclamation mark. There's a big picture of a judge's gavel and small letters at the bottom that say the ads are funded simply by a private family foundation.

SCOT ROSS: I think that these billboards are designed to suppress the vote. That is their intention.

FESSLER: Scot Ross is executive director of the Institute for One Wisconsin. It's among a number of liberal groups and labor organizations demanding that the billboards be taken down. Ross notes that many are located in predominately black, Hispanic and university neighborhoods.

ROSS: Just the concentration of them is pretty good indication what the end goal is and who these anonymous billboards are targeting for voter suppression.

FESSLER: In other words, students, minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic. And in such a close election, this has lots of people wondering just who is behind these ads?

Clear Channel Communications, which owns the billboards, isn't saying. A spokesman wrote in an email to NPR that the advertiser asked to be anonymous. That goes against company policy, but he said the contract was signed by mistake and the company does not plan to take the billboards down. We will do all we can to ensure it does not happen again, the spokesman said. He didn't respond to questions about why the company allowed almost identical billboards to go up anonymously in Milwaukee in 2010.

RASHAD ROBINSON: We're going to work incredibly hard to find out who's behind these.

FESSLER: Rashad Robinson is executive director of ColorOfChange, an online civil rights group. It's launched a petition drive calling on Clear Channel to remove the ads. So far, more than 65,000 people have signed on. Robinson says even though the ads are factually correct, they imply that voter fraud is rampant.

ROBINSON: In fact, you're more likely to get hit by lightning than to have in-person voter fraud. And so, these anonymous donors are not running billboards warning us about getting hit by lightning. They are running these billboards in black and brown neighborhoods with the real intention of scaring people.

FESSLER: He says it doesn't help that Clear Channel is owned in large part by Bain Capital, the former company of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, although the acquisition occurred long after he left.

To some, all of this is much ado about nothing. Nathan Conrad is a spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. He says the party has no connection to the billboards, but it does take the issue of voter integrity very seriously.

NATHAN CONRAD: My impression and understanding is that they simply state what the law is in the state of Wisconsin. And that being said, I'm not sure how it would intimidate anyone who was not planning on voting illegally going into the election season.

FESSLER: Larry Gamble is with Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, a citizens group concerned about voter fraud. He says he doesn't think the billboards are intimidating or racist. He notes that two of them are near his home, well outside Milwaukee. Instead, he thinks the ads are educational because they inform people who might not know that voter fraud is a serious crime.

LARRY GAMBLE: If it's somebody that might be coerced into trying to game the system and vote twice or manipulate the elections process somehow, it sends a very clear signal and maybe it would be a wake-up call for that individual.

FESSLER: And even if the billboards are intended to intimidate, there's no evidence such tactics work, that they don't instead have the opposite impact. Indeed, a coalition of billboard opponents called Election Protection put up new billboards today in Milwaukee and Cleveland encouraging people to stand up for their rights and vote.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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