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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: Stealing campaign signs

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

You know it’s campaign season when there are signs, signs, everywhere signs. Blocking out the scenery, and breaking the peace between neighbors when signs disappear. Sign wars have been fierce in the 5th Congressional District campaign. Both sides are suspicious of an organized effort behind the thefts.

Democrat Lisa Brown’s campaign chairwoman Tanya Riordan estimates that more than 8,000 of her yard signs have been distributed across the district.

“They are gone almost as quickly as we can get them printed,” said Riordan.

Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ campaign added over 6,000 new signs this year to those pulled from storage in garages and barns. “For many, it’s a statement of pride in having long supported Cathy,” said campaign chairman Patrick Bell. “But we’ve lost a record number of signs this year – over 600 have been replaced.” He’s noticed signs disappearing almost as soon as they’re planted on Spokane’s South Hill, while signs in rural areas have mostly remained undisturbed for months.

Riordan described the number of Brown campaign signs disappeared or damaged as “a lot,” saying they receive calls every day from supporters: “We just give them another one if we have any available.” She suggested letting Crime Check know when signs have been stolen.

Riordan worked with the sheriff’s office this summer to educate a group of teenagers stealing signs and stupidly bragging about it on social media.

Removing or defacing “lawfully placed political advertising including yard signs or billboards” is a misdemeanor under RCW 29A.84.040. Each sign messed with is a separate violation. Each violation is subject to 90 days imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine. Entering private property is another misdemeanor, criminal trespass in the second degree. The wayward youths were warned to knock it off.

But few people call the cops over a $2.50 piece of corrugated plastic and a wire stake. And realistically, all Crime Check operators can do is sympathetically take a report. All reports logged into Crime Check are read by a detective looking for possible felony charges to pursue, and campaign sign theft is not a law enforcement priority. Sign stealers primarily risk a confrontation with an angry property owner.

Bell is more concerned with a disturbing trend in the number of signs spray-painted with vulgarities or slashed to pieces. “In 2016 we had to replace two large 4-foot-by-8-foot signs,” he said. “So far, with nearly two months left to go in the campaign, we’ve replaced 80.” He’s never seen thefts happen so quickly, or vandalism with such maliciousness.

Sign wars are pushing determined volunteers of both candidates to get creative. Bell and Riordan reported supporters are putting signs out of reach on a second floor or in a car, planting stout metal poles, nailing signs to trees and installing outdoor lights. And there are a few surveillance cameras hoping to catch the next viral shaming video. If sign stealing is your thing, you’ve been warned.

But do signs work? Are they worth the visual blight, the money, time and effort to plant, tend and eventually remove? The few studies on effectiveness have focused on links between signs and voting in general, rather than impact for a specific candidate.

Curiously, it doesn’t seem to matter if the signs are political or nonpolitical. An Auburn University study found external displays of support for the Auburn Tigers were nearly as good a predictor of whether a household had active voters in the next election as lawns decorated with campaign signs.

It seems being willing to risk the wrath of the Husky next door by flying a WSU flag on your porch is an indication of broader public engagement.

If the point of the mischief is to demoralize an opponent’s campaign, it has the opposite effect.

Riordan quoted one Brown volunteer as saying, “They can steal my sign, but they can’t steal my vote.” She’s noticed that signs being stolen seems to motivate people even more.

Bell would agree. When a string of signs along U.S. Highway 195 disappeared the week before the WSU Cougars’ first home football game, eager McMorris Rodgers volunteers turned out to replace them in time to display their message to the football crowd. Go Cougs!