Sykes’ Suspicious Smokescreen
Charlie Sykes uses anonymous interview to claim the “family” putting up voter fraud billboards fears for its safety.
That Charlie Sykes, he sure has good sources.
No one in the country knows the identity of those shadowy people who put up the scary billboard signs saying “Voter Fraud Is a Felony!” punishable by up to three and a half years in prison and fines of $10,000. Clear Channel Communications, which owns the billboards and recently decided to take them down, would not disclose the identity of the buyers. The only clue was the ad itself, put up on billboards in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Columbus, which claims it was paid for by a “private family foundation” but offers no other details.
Ah, but Charlie knows who paid for the ads. And they are good people, ladies and gentlemen, a husband and wife who “thought they were were being good citizens,” Sykes assures us, without offering any direct quote to that effect.
They are also a courageous couple, who “were not going to back down,” Sykes claims, when Clear Channel said they must reveal their identity or take down the ads. (The company says it has a policy against anonymous ads.) Nosiree, this couple was going to make a public statement, “a powerful statement of free speech,” Sykes assures us, while once again not offering one word of this powerful statement. And the statement would be sent to Sykes so he could put it up on his website. What a scoop that would have been for Charlie.
Alas, it was not to be. “That night,” Sykes writes, the couple’s children “expressed strong objections, fearing not only for their parents safety, but also for the safety of their grandchildren, who felt they might be put at risk by the forced disclosure of the family’s name.”
Sykes has often emphasized that he is not a journalist but an entertainer, and this was certainly an entertaining blog post. But did it include any journalism? Sykes says he spoke at length with the head of the “family foundation” leaving us to guess whether that’s actually what the group is. As for the idea the family is worried for the safety of its children and grandchildren, that seems a little overwrought. An actual journalist might have asked, and why exactly were your children concerned about their safety?
The idea that the ads were stopped by “bullying,” as Sykes puts it, or by “leftist thugs,” as one right-wing web site charged, is intended to suggest that democratic actions are somehow vicious or even violent.
In fact, those who objected to the billboards simply used the most peaceful and democratic means to pressure Clear Channel. The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, a voting advocacy group based in Washington, sent a letter to Clear Channel demanding they take down the ads. And Color of Change, a national civil rights group, got 65,000 people to sign a petition protesting the billboards. Using the same method, groups on both the right and left have frequently put pressure on advertisers. Since when do people have to worry about the safety of the children and grandchildren from the exercise of free speech?
Sykes and other defenders of the signs say they are simply stating what the law is. But the sign offers no definition of voter fraud, so its educational value is rather limited. Meanwhile the judge’s gavel and the emphasis on punishment is a very scary message.
“They create a culture of fear,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, told the Huffington Post. “They’ve only been put up in black and brown neighborhoods… They are targeting certain communities, and they’re creating a fear for people going to the polls.”
New Republic writer Jamil Smith offered an interesting reaction: “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?”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer cited experts who estimated approximately 16,000 ex-offenders live in Cleveland. The number is undoubtedly in the thousands in Milwaukee, with many in inner city neighborhoods. Felons in Wisconsin cannot vote if they are still on probation or parole, but there is sometimes confusion over this; some in Wisconsin have been prosecuted for voting before they have become eligible. One can imagine some eligible to vote might be scared away.
Eighty-five of the billboards were put up in Milwaukee and 60 in Cleveland and Columbus. The voting age populations in the neighborhoods in Cleveland and Columbus where the signs were placed are 96 percent black, 88 percent black and 76 percent black, the Huffington Post reported. The signs were distributed more widely in Milwaukee, but Mike Wilder director of the African-American Round Table, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he counted about 20 of these billboards in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
Though the alleged goal here was to let people know the penalties for voter fraud, the billboards were largely targeted to voters, black and Latino, which polls show will vote heavily for Democrat Barack Obama. And they targeted the two states, Ohio and Wisconsin, that noted polling analyst Nate Silver has predicted are likely “tipping point” states that could decide the election: he estimates Ohio has an almost 50 percent chance of tipping the election while Wisconsin’s chance is just over ten percent.
Sykes references an anonymous report in 2008 by some members of the Milwaukee Police Department (which Chief Ed Flynn criticized) claiming there was widespread voter fraud in Milwaukee, but in fact, the bipartisan investigation that year by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm (Democrat), and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen (Republican), resulted in 20 prosecutions, mostly ineligible felons. Similarly, a joint investigation in 2004 by then U.S. Attorney Stephen Biskupic (appointed by a Republican president) and then District Attorney E. Michael McCann (a Democrat) found some isolated instances of illegal votes, again mostly by ineligible felons.
The few prosecutions for voter fraud in Wisconsin do not show a higher prevalence in certain neighborhoods. Indeed, two of the more recent cases involved a couple in Wauwatosa, and a white Milwaukee couple, conservatives who got so upset by the claims of talk radio that rampant voter fraud was canceling out their vote that they decided to vote twice. Rather than billboards scaring voters, maybe a better way to reduce the few instances of voter fraud is to ask talk radio hosts to tone down all that misleading “entertainment.”
-Sykes has vehemently denied that he gets his talking points from the Republican Party, but it is interesting that these billboards which target two key states for the party were done by an anonymous operative that only he has access to.
-A New York Times analysis of states that passed the more restrictive photo ID laws shows it will only be a factor in two swing states: Virginia and New Hampshire.
-An analyst of Google searches notes that they have been used to accurately predict voter turnout in 2004 and 2008 and this year show a similar level of engagement in the election by Democrats and Republicans, black and youth voters, as in 2008. That suggests the turnout could be similar to 2008, which is good news for Obama. The analysis also found a much higher interest among Mormons, which could help Romney in the swing states of Colorado and Nevada, as both have a significant population of Mormoms, the analysis noted.