Everything you wanted to know about election signs but were afraid to ask

  • Campaign signs along the entrance of I-89 North. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Yard signs are seen on a back road in Ashland on Nov. 1, 2016. Campaign signs have been a thing since the early 1800s. Political scientists question the effectiveness of yard signs, at least in presidential politics. But that hasn't stopped Americans from displaying their politics on their lawns. AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 8/21/2022 11:19:12 AM
Modified: 8/21/2022 11:15:39 AM

Absentee ballots are now available for the state primary election on Sept. 13, when the two political parties will choose their candidates for a slew of state and federal races from state representative up to U.S. senator. Consider it a warmup for the midterm elections on Nov. 8. 

The most visible reminder of upcoming elections is, of course, all those vote-for-me signs cropping up on roadsides. With that in mind, here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about the purpose and rules behind all of those signs:

Q. Where can (and can’t) signs be placed?

While campaign signs can legally be placed in an awful lot of places, there are limits.

On private land, as you’d expect, the owner’s permission is necessary. If one has been plunked onto your front yard without your permission, go ahead and remove it if you wish.

The same permission goes for public land: You can’t stick your sign next to the front door of town hall unless the selectmen say it’s OK, for example. However, you’re not allowed to remove those signs from public property. Lodge a complaint and ask the local officials to do it.

Signs and placards can’t be put on utility poles. In fact, you’re not supposed to attach anything to utility poles, despite what owners of lost pets think.

Rules are more complicated for land alongside roads, the most coveted real estate for eyeball-seeking campaigns.

New Hampshire Department of Transportation guidelines can be summarized like this: Signs can’t be placed on interstates or along on- and off-ramps, but they can go next to all state roads unless the signs are deemed to create a traffic hazard because they block the view of traffic or signals or if they get in the way of maintenance work (usually mowing). In that case, they might be removed by road crews or the police.

Signs removed by local officials are stored at the public works garage or police department. If nobody gets them, they usually get tossed a week or two after the election.

Q. Speaking of removing signs, can I take them down?

State law is clear: The only folks who can remove a sign are the campaign workers that placed it, the owner of private property (that’s why you control the fate of signs on your front yard), law enforcement or highway crews.

After a political primary like this, winning candidates can leave their signs up until the general election. Losers, however, are required to remove all their political signs from common land by the second Friday following the election, which in this case will be Sept. 23. They can stay on private property forever as long as the owners don’t mind.

If a sign is still around on public land after the deadline, call your local police or road crew.

Q. Do political signs in yards actually work?

If they don’t, a lot of money is being wasted.

The cost of these signs depends on their type – coroplast? polycoatedposterboard? polybag? – as well as the number of colors used, whether they include art and the number of signs bought at one time. The cheapest and smallest signs cost around $3 each, plus another buck or so for the wire holder to push into the grass. Big signs can cost $20 apiece or more, not counting shipping.

Particularly in local races such as state representative, buying these signs is often the biggest single campaign cost.

People certainly think signs do influence the electorate, otherwise we wouldn’t see all the stories about candidates complaining that their signs were stolen or vandalized. I know of only one effort to scientifically study their effectiveness.

A paper published in the March 2016 edition of the research journal Electoral Studies discussed four randomized trials involving candidates for Congress, mayor and a county office in a few different states, and a campaign directed against a candidate. Signs were placed in some precincts and not in others.

The conclusion was that on average, signs increased a candidate’s voting share by 1.7 percentage points. That’s not much but it’s not nothing: Plenty of elections are decided by less than 1.7 percentage points.

So yes, they do work. A little bit. Maybe.

Q: Is there anything useful to do with these signs once electioneering is done, assuming the campaign doesn’t want them?

Not much that I’ve been able to figure out. If you can turn them inside out you can use them to advertise your next garage sale. If they’re plastic, they make passable snow sleds for kids on the neighborhood hill as.

One thing I can tell you: They make terrible Frisbees.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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