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Cost of election messages on billboards skyrockets

Joel Kurth, and Christine Ferretti

The price of billboards reminding Detroiters to vote is doubling and officials blame the elimination of straight-party voting in Michigan.

The City Council this week approved a no-bid contract with International Outdoor of Farmington Hills for up to 21 billboards featuring key voting dates and reminders from City Clerk Janice Winfrey.

The cost of the three-year deal: $900,000. That’s up from $413,000 total for the previous three years, according to city records.

Randy Oram, president of the billboard company, said costs are increasing to reflect the number of elections and need for more education since the Legislature voted in December to end straight-party voting. About 78 percent of Detroiters typically voted straight-ticket, said Daniel Baxter, the city’s elections director.

“Detroit has issues with people understanding the rules. ... It’s going to be a hard thing informing voters of no straight-party voting,” Oram said.

International Outdoor has had the contract six years and typically charges about $150,000 per year.

Baxter predicted the city wouldn’t spend the entire $900,000 but said the money is necessary because he anticipates confusion at the polls with the changes.

City Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry argued billboards don’t work.

“If I had my druthers, I’d rather take that $900,000 that we use for billboards and put it into the people to do the walking in the neighborhood to clean up the (registered voters) list,” Cushingberry said during debate last week.

Councilman Andre Spivey said council is satisfied with the cost increases, saying “prices go up” and “a lot has changed” since International Outdoor first got the deal in 2009.

The use of such billboards can be controversial because they often feature photos of elected officials. Some contend they give them taxpayer-funded advertising.

Winfrey, who is challenging U.S. Rep. John Conyers this year, said the billboards are educational.

“I didn’t start this. The Department of Elections has used billboards to inform and educate voters for decades, long before I became clerk,” said Winfrey, who has been clerk since 2005.

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