Voter suppression exists, it’s blatant, and Vote.org is fighting back.

Last updated on September 20, 2018

Voter suppression billboards found in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods.Voter suppression billboards found in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods.

In 2010, almost 100 billboards popped-up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin warning citizens that “voter fraud is a felony.” The billboards were paid for by an anonymous private family foundation (Clear Channel declined to identify the buyer), and they appeared primarily in low-income black and brown neighborhoods.

The reality is in-person voter fraud is less common than UFO sightings. These billboards, then, were blatant examples of voter suppression — a political strategy used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting.

Hundreds more of these voter suppression billboards went up in 2012. This time, the billboards blanketed black and brown neighborhoods in both Ohio and Wisconsin.

Different design, same message.Different design, same message.

A federal judge in Ohio found that “these billboards seemed to be strategically placed disproportionately in African-American and Latino neighborhoods in both cities, often within eyesight of large public housing communities” even though there was “was little to no evidence that [voter] fraud was taking place in Ohio.”

A 2012 joint investigation by One Wisconsin Now and The Grio revealed that the Einhorn Family Foundation and Bradley Family Foundation were behind the voter suppression billboards.

Inspired by the use of billboards to deter voters, Vote.org determined that if billboards can be used to suppress turnout, they can also be used to increase turnout. So, we bought some billboards of our own.

In fact, in 2017, Vote.org went big on billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising in Virginia and Alabama. We placed get-out-the-vote (GOTV) ads on 100 buses and 100 billboards in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia in the four weeks leading up to the gubernatorial race. We went even bigger in Alabama, buying 140 billboards in Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and other parts of the “Black Belt” and securing 59 bus ads in Birmingham.

The copy on the GOTV ads was simple: it said VOTE and listed the date of the election. Anecdotally, both reporters and on the ground organizers told us that the billboards were “everywhere.”

Data shows that our billboards and bus ads were viewed over 100 million times by low and mid-propensity voters. Everywhere we placed these billboards voter turnout was higher than had been predicted by experts.

Vote.org billboard in Hampton Roads, VA area during November 2017 special election.Vote.org billboard in Hampton Roads, VA area during November 2017 special election.

This midterm election, here’s why Vote.org will remain bullish on billboards.

  • They’re cheap: The low inventory and production costs make billboards one of the cheapest mass-marketing mediums available. Vote.org can blanket entire congressional districts for $150,000. We can cover every inch of Florida for $2.2 million.
  • They reach young people: They’re an excellent way to reach young people (a demographic target that most campaigns do not effectively reaching during election cycles) — and particularly more effective than broadcast television, a medium young people decreasingly watch year-over-year.
  • And young people pay attention: Corporate marketing studies (including research by Nielson) have demonstrated that consumers notice outdoor advertising and that young people are especially likely to recall the messages they see on large-format advertising channels.
  • They’re literal amplifiers: Nielson studies also show that billboards are an effective amplifier for other outreach efforts — such as direct mail, radio, and SMS.

Below are a few resources to learn more about voter suppression:

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