The anonymous donor behind a voter fraud billboard campaign would rather pull the ads than be identified, raising questions about ties to Romney-founded Bain Capital and its ownership of the company that owns and operates the billboard firm.
What is the connection between Bain Capital and a bevy of voter fraud billboards funded by an anonymous donor that have popped up in low-income neighborhoods in swing states only weeks before the election?
The management firm started by Mitt Romney is one of the owners of Clear Channel Communications, the advertising and billboard company at the center of a scandal surrounding more than 140 billboards warning against voter fraud.
Clear Channel, which syndicates Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on its radio channels, has said it will remove the billboards following a public pressure campaign. But the company has still not revealed the anonymous donor behind the billboards, contrary to its rules on political ads.
The billboards appear to be part of the Republican-led push to pass bills against voter fraud that advocates argue is meant to discourage minority communities from exercising their right to vote. But it also shows the difficulty of finding who is behind the money, or the billboard, in the age of Citizens United.
"The only reason they decided to take down the ads was because they didn't want to reveal [the donor's] identity," said Timothy Karr, the senior director of strategy at Free Press. "This part of a larger trend of groups that want to influence the election, but operate behind this veil of secrecy."
That low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Cleveland were chosen as the target audience for the billboards isn't surprising, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change.
"They were targeting communities where black and Latino people live and creating an air of fear and uncertainty around people casting a vote," said Robinson.
The ads featured a large judge's gavel under the words: "voter fraud is a felony" and warned that it carried a $10,000 fine and three and a half years in prison.
Color of Change was one of several organizations leading the outcry against the billboards. A petition garnered over 66,000 signatures, Robinson said.
As attention was brought to the ads, Clear Channel was pressured to justify their presence. A spokesman initially told NPR that it was against company policy, and a mistake, to make the contract with the anonymous donor. But the company said it did not plan to remove the billboards.
Nearly a week later, Clear Channel has said that it would remove the billboards instead of making the donor's name public.
"We reviewed the situation, and in light of the fact that these billboards violate our policy of not accepting anonymous political ads, we asked the client how they would prefer to work with us to bring the boards into conformance with our policy," said Jim Cullinan, Clear Channel Outdoor spokesman. "The client thought the best solution was to take the boards down, so we are in the process of removing them."
The company also has promised to sponsor 10 free billboards saying: "Voting is a right. Not a Crime!"
Karr says that like many of our elections ills, this one has its roots in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
"We are not only seeing this in billboards, but online and in political ads on TV - there is a lack of disclosure," said Karr. "It's even worse in the wake of Citizens United, because it has unleashed a whole new category of political groups that can raise record amounts of money without having to disclose their donors."
Clear Channel Communications also plays a more direct role in elections through its Political Action Committee (PAC) and Leadership PAC.
The Clear Channel Communication Inc. PAC is required to disclose any expenditure by its employees over $750 made for or against a candidate or ballot measure. Its most recent Federal Election Commission filing shows that the PAC distributed $584,000 since January 2011, and $62,500 to committees in October 2012.
The October contributions went to candidates including Jeff Denham, a Republican California Senator who recently threatened to sue the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over an attack ad; Anna Eshoo, a millionaire also running for a Senate seat in California as a Republican; and Florida Republican Adam Hasner.
Leadership PACs are usually started by senators or representatives to help the campaigns of other candidates. Clear Channel's leadership PAC disbursed $15, 687 so far this year.
"It is to their benefit financially to portray themselves as merely a conduit for the messenger, not judge the content of the ads. But in the business of billboards as in other business that Clear Channel is involved in, they do have a responsibility towards presenting accurate information," said Karr.
Because Clear Channel syndicates most conservative talk radio shows, including Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, it carries conversations about voter fraud on in its radio content. Beck began one of his TV shows on voter fraud with the words: "Expect the fraud."
Arlene Ash, a professor in the quantitative health sciences department at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a former Truthout board member, said that the conversation around voter fraud in the media has wildly overstated the problem.
"It is quite clear that there have been years of concentrated effort to make the American public believe that voter fraud is a common problem. You have right-wing radio hosts and the media constantly referring to the problem of voter fraud, with [it being an] extremely minor issue of voter fraud," said Ash in an interview.
"There is a substantial belief among the American public in general that consider themselves to be Democrats who believe that voter fraud is very common," she continued. "It's quite clear that more than a decade of beating the drums and making news about this nonexistent problem has convinced Americans that it is a problem."
Karr says that in the case of anonymous donors, like the one behind Clear Channel's billboard, stronger disclosure laws across the board would help patrol the content of the ads. "People who give money don't want to be associated with nasty and deceptive ads," said Karr.
Robinson, with Color of Change, agrees. "If there is nothing wrong with these billboards, then the donor should come out to the public and stand up with everything they are putting out in our communities. But they would choose to take down the billboard rather than actually have to stand next to these messages."