Scammy political billboard of questionable legality: what to do?
April 9, 2011 8:16 PM   Subscribe

There's a misleading political billboard up in my small Massachusetts town, implying photo ID is required for voting. This is not true. I'm hopping mad & trying to figure out what would be an appropriate response to this situation. (More info & a photo link below.)

I first saw the ad while I was out running errands with my kids this week. I had other things on my mind, didn't look too closely, and just assumed it was some sort of public notice about the upcoming special election for the 6th Worcester District congressional seat.

Later on when I was home relaxing in my jammies it randomly occurred to me that Massachusetts election laws don't require photo ID checks at the polls. When I went back this morning to check out the ad again, it looked pretty fishy: I noticed there's no attribution info the billboard saying "paid for by" or "a message from" _____. Also, it's across the parking lot from a state agency building, making it even easier to mistake for an official state notice.

If this were a general interest campaign to educate voters about new voting requirements in Massachusetts election law, there would be more than the one billboard. The message would have some form of recognizable attribution, with a website link and/or phone number for people to get more information. There would be public service announcements on TV, stories on the news, and articles in the newspaper. People would be talking about it.

The fact that someone out there is choosing to launch a campaign to encourage voters to think photo ID is required for voting with *one* billboard, in a crappy neighborhood in a town that is demographically poorer, browner, and left-leaning than the rest of the congressional district is sketchy as all get-out.

Here's a photo of the billboard:

So, uh, now what do I do?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You get in touch with Clear Channel Outdoor, using the the number on the top left of the billboard as the identifier. If you don't get a straight answer, you go to the local paper and ask them to put in an official press inquiry.
posted by holgate at 8:23 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you should complain to the company servicing the billboard. You might also contact someone at that state agency and see what they say. Also, maybe look into voter issues on intimidation and ID at the Project Vote site.
posted by amanda at 8:24 PM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: I noticed there's no attribution info the billboard saying "paid for by" or "a message from" _____.

I believe the names of the groups involved are "Empower Massachusetts" and "Show ID to Vote".
Empower Massachusetts and Show ID to Vote are launching a new "Integrity of the Vote" campaign this week in Southbridge MA with a billboard asking voters to show their IDs at the polls.
posted by zamboni at 8:40 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are you sure photo idea isn't required? It is here in VA. I thought that came to be in all the post 9/11 security craziness.
posted by COD at 8:54 PM on April 9, 2011

Best answer: A little press wouldn't hurt; I would e-mail Talking Points Memo about it. One of the issues they focus on is exactly this kind of vote suppression technique. They may already have some info on the groups behind it or be able to dig up some facts on them.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:06 PM on April 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Here in Wisconsin there's a lot of talk about requiring voter ID, but right now it is not required. My polling place had typed signs all over the place explaining that no, you don't need ID. Obviously it doesn't help if people got scared away for voting, but it does help clarify things at least when voters show up. Maybe you can get in touch with local officials and suggest something similar?
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:10 PM on April 9, 2011

Call the local press and TV news stations. They might be interested in this.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:17 PM on April 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, photo ids aren't required in Virginia either. The Virginia Board of Elections notes that an acceptable form of ID is your voter registration card, and unless things have really changed under McDonnell and Cuccinelli, those don't have photos on them. Even if you don't have that, you can still sign an Affirmation of Identity.
posted by thecaddy at 9:55 PM on April 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mod note: OP is not anonymous, please direct answers not answering some variant of "what should I do about this" to MeMail please.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:59 PM on April 9, 2011

You might want to contact your local political party. They'll have the knowledge and wherewithal to contract appropriate authorities if something is being done that is illegal.

That said, this billboard doesn't say "you must show ID to vote". It merely implies that if you do, you're protecting the integrity of the vote.

It's BS, but it walks up to the line, not over it. IANAL or a Judge, but I suspect they've been well-advised on how to be almost illegal in their voter suppression techniques.

In Texas, we get jokers who distribute flyers in certain neighborhoods that indicate that the police will be checking outstanding warrants at polling places, or that state that election day is either the day later (e.g. on a Wednesday) or a week later than it actually is.

Those guys are somehow never found, but that's what illegal political ads look like.
posted by Mad_Carew at 10:36 PM on April 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

I guess it'd be illegal to add a "Even though you don't have to" banner to the billboard.
posted by bz at 12:24 AM on April 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Does the billboard really imply that a photo ID is required to vote? If that were really the case, there would be no point to the imperative; why bother urging citizens to "SHOW ID!" if they have no choice? I guess I could see some people taking the wrong message from the billboard, and perhaps that's reason enough to object.
posted by Maxa at 1:19 AM on April 10, 2011

Might want to call the local paper; the local reporters are often looking for an interesting story that goes beyond "boy scout saves cat". Figure out a way to pitch it to them (not "Obvious blatant scam", but some variation on "Local Political action group tries to suppress minority votes"), make the call, ask to talk to the local reporter. It takes a bit of homework on your part, but may get the lights turned on.
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:56 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

My marketing background causes me to read ads differently than the rest of the world. I understand that they espouse a philosophy that differs from yours, and I would agree with your suspicion that it may be cause some people to get confused, but honestly - it's not the least bit misleading. The call to action seems to be to get people to show ID when they vote.

I understand that you don't like it, but there's nothing actionable here. I agree you could call the paper and they might run a story, but given that the aim of political advertising is often to attract more publicity, be prepared for that story to also include a spokesperson for their side to make their case as well.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:05 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Worcester Telegram has an article about it today:

Town rebuffs groups on voter ID issue

I am proud of my town.
posted by andreap at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in the same area and would also suggest contacting the telegram and gazette, or maybe MoveOn. If you need a hand with things, please PM me. Also, why is Worcester county so full of Tea-Partiers? it's bizarre. I wish they'd go back to New Hampshire.
posted by genmonster at 11:11 AM on April 10, 2011

FYI the Conservative Government in Canada managed to pass a law that requires you to present an ID at the poll and it really did act to disenfranchise those on the margins of society (I.E. those more likely to vote for the liberal parties).

To me this is a misleading billboard, and they're probably aiming for some legal loophole because it doesn't actually say "You need to present ad ID to vote."
posted by Brodiggitty at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2011

I'm not encouraging you to commit a crime. But, hypothetically speaking, a person who felt strongly enough about subverting this message, and who had exhausted other means, might consider remixing it, under cover of darkness, of course.
posted by wheat at 2:31 PM on April 10, 2011

Best answer: I get the impression that circulating information meant to mislead people and suppress voter turnout is a Federal crime. I don't know the specifics but I'm wary of anyone saying "it's not strictly incorrect so they're probably legal." I would contact the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and let them know your concerns. Even if the ads are arguably technically legal, a federal investigation can make people (including the billboard companies) very, very uncomfortable, and often people end up going to jail for lying to the investigators even if they committed no crime. Suppressing voter turnout by misleadingly telling people they need to show I.D. is something the DOJ should be interested in. Call or write them.
posted by jayder at 2:33 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

The billboard seems to be advocating the use of ID when voting. Nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is you thinking that it is informing the public that ID is a requirement. If you do not like the message being conveyed then you have every right to call Clear Channel and rent your own billboard. Other than that there is nothing you can do about it.
posted by Gungho at 2:49 PM on April 10, 2011

FWIW, to me the billboard does not suggest that ID is required to vote. It looks more like the organizations (Empower Massachusetts/Show ID to Vote) *want* ID to be required to vote. It's a campaign go get ID required. Following up on the link to Empower Massachusetts' website seems to confirm.

For the life of me I can't understand why ID isn't required to vote. At least, it isn't here in IL. We just tell them our name. Oh, and then sign a piece of paper, which has a copy of our signature already on it, making it really easy to copy. (I don't have the same signature now as I did when I was 18, so that's really helpful for me.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:51 PM on April 10, 2011

For the life of me I can't understand why ID isn't required to vote.

Because poll taxes are illegal and it costs money to get an ID.

The billboard seems to be advocating the use of ID when voting. Nothing wrong with that

Fine, then let's ask Occam what the point is when the election workers can't do anything with the ID anyway? It protects exactly nothing.
posted by rhizome at 2:59 PM on April 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

It is a subtle way of impressing the unsophisticated and barely literate with the idea that you must have an I.D. to vote. Those of us reading Metafilter "get it"; the target audience, those without I.D.s, very well may not.

What's more, the ad just doesn't make sense ... The people who would comply are not the ones who would threaten the integrity of the vote.
posted by jayder at 3:20 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (Eastern Regional Office here) PDF "Getting Uncle Sam to Enforce Your Civil Rights", dated 2007:
If you think you were discriminated against when you tried to vote or register to vote, immediately complain to local voting officials, and contact the nearest United States Attorney’s Office or write to the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice at the address below. You should also complain if you were discriminated against in campaigning for office, or when you took part in a political meeting, signed up other voters, or served as an election official or poll watcher, or if you think a change in local voting laws has a discriminatory purpose or effect. [...] The U.S. Attorney General may bring a civil action in federal district court to enforce your right to vote. As a private individual, you may also bring a civil action to remedy discriminatory behavior.
And definitely alert the media (and Twitter!), who can still raise a stink even it's technically legal.

The woman on the sign doesn't even look like that ID picture.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:02 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My sister works in MA State government and here are a few thigns she suggested
file a complaint with Bill Galvin (secretary of the commonwealth) in the elections division. contact info is here:

the elections division oversees the state voting process, and they may find some cause for alarm here.

The other option is to go to the Attorney General, under the provision that the advertisement is violating some aspect of the outdoor advertising statute, by being misleading with it's intent, and probably with it's placement. Outdoor advertising, like billboards, is actually regulated by the department of transportation. Contact info for them is here

but they are investigated by the AG's office. you can file a complaint with them here/

I would go to the state on this one, instead of local. Voting is a state or federal issue, not a local jurisdictional one. They could go federal, and try to declare it a violation of the voting rights act (which it probably is), but I am not sure of the process for that.
posted by jessamyn at 7:57 AM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your town and your state have Election Boards. Complain to them, with pictures, dates, and glossy color photographs. ewwww, slimy. thank you for protecting the right to vote.
posted by theora55 at 2:47 AM on April 12, 2011

Could you please update us if anything happens to the billboard? We had similar scammy billboards in Milwaukee last year with "Voter Fraud is a crime" and vaguely minority looking people behind bars.
posted by drezdn at 5:14 AM on April 12, 2011

The general consensus amongst the PTBs is that concerned citizens should contact Clear Channel Outdoors (phone: 781.438.8880, contact form: here) and explain to them that you're very upset that someone is using one of their billboards to fraudulently compromise an election.
posted by Anonymous 2 days ago

Wouldn't that be a bit of fraud in itself? No one here is saying you must have ID to vote, so there is no fraud. Sure there is Madison Avenue-like wordsmithing, but no fraud.
posted by Gungho at 7:13 AM on April 14, 2011

Sure there is Madison Avenue-like wordsmithing, but no fraud.

Most attempts to keep people from voting employ maneuvers like that, sort of sideways attempts to influence people not out and out "Hey Hispanics, don't vote!" and there's a long and troublede history of this happening in the US and elsewhere. If a billboard right by the DMV uses words and imagery that strongly imply that a driver's license might be required to vote, that might be cause for concern, doubly so if the people responsible for the billboard are an organization who seem to think that voting is a privilege, not a right [as they are quoted as saying the linked article].

Kicking it up the chain allows the people who are skilled and trained in working with these difficult situations to figure out what is really going on and whether laws were broken. Clear Channel knows this as does everyone else involved. People can also tell Clear Channel what they think about this billboard and the message it is attempting to convey knowing full well that Clear Channel won't take some caller's word for what the laws concerning outdoor advertising are. Telling Clear Channel that you think their billboard sucks is just more free speech.
posted by jessamyn at 9:50 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anonymized this for the OP after the fact. Here are the two comments made prior to this
Thanks for all the thoughtful replies, everyone.

My two big issues with the billboard:

1. Lack of specific attribution information. Misleading political advertisements from mysterious political groups on television always have some sort of language in them that says "This is a message from Uncontroversial Seniors for America" or "Paid for by the Committee for Shiny Happy People" or what have you. Is the law somehow different for print advertising? Could I legally start a group called "Don't Pay Your Taxes" and put up a misleading sign across from my local tax collector's office, with only the name of the group for attribution?

2. Location & proximity to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The ID the woman in the picture is holding is the latest redesign of the Massachusetts driver's license, which has gone through several changes and upgrades in the last ten years. This in and of itself would seem innocuous, but the fact that the sign is a) across the RMV parking lot and b) doesn't have any specific attribution language makes the sign seem more like some sort of official notice from the state.

If the goal of this political ad is to affect voter turnout in my neighborhood, it's certainly done its job. I for one am going to make sure I vote on Tuesday, and make sure everyone I know turns out at the polls as well..

The billboard story has been picked up by the Associated Press:

here's a link to the story on

I'm glad the story is starting to get some media attention, but I wish the AP story included the detail about how the billboard that says "Show ID to Vote" is a photo of a lady holding a Massachusetts driver's license across the street from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Also, while I agree that there's a racial component to the issue, I don't think you necessarily have to frame it that way. I'm a white person and I totally hate this billboard. It's deliberately misleading to have a photo of a lady holding a driver's license that says "Show ID to Vote" across the street from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Lots of elderly people in town who don't drive anymore might think they can't vote in the special election because they don't have an up-to-date driver's license like the woman on the sign across from the Registry. They're trying to confuse Southbridge voters about the rules so it will affect voter turnout in an already soft election.

Anyhow, thanks again for all the helpful suggestions, everyone. I've had some great conversations with people at the ACLU, the Elections Division, and the Office of Outdoor Advertising. The general consensus amongst the PTBs is that concerned citizens should contact Clear Channel Outdoors (phone: 781.438.8880, contact form: here) and explain to them that you're very upset that someone is using one of their billboards to fraudulently compromise an election.

Another update: Department of Justice may be getting involved.
posted by jessamyn at 8:02 PM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

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