A primer on signs as the city campaign approaches
|Published: 10-15-2023 4:00 PM
Red and black campaign signs for Concord School Board candidate Michael Guglielmo appeared on either side of the entrance to the city-owned Beaver Meadow Golf Course last week.
More signs were placed in the triangular median at the intersection of Lake View Drive and Carter Hill Road, which is also a piece of public property.
Within days of their arrival, someone plucked the signs out of the dirt and laid them flat on the ground, making them less visible.
The episode presents several questions. Were the signs allowed to be placed on public property? Can anyone else touch a sign whether it is legally or illegally located?
Concord’s election on Nov. 7 is less than a month away. With that date in mind, here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about campaign signs.
Q. Where can (and can’t) signs be placed?
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 owner’s permission is needed for public land, too, although sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly who the owner is. You can’t, for example, stick your vote-for-me sign next to City Hall unless the City Council says it’s OK (but they won’t).
Signs and placards can’t be put on utility poles. 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 campaigns. New Hampshire Department of Transportation guidelines can be summarized like this:
Signs can go next to all state roads unless the signs are deemed to create a hazard by impeding the view of traffic, or if they’re deemed to get in the way of maintenance work (usually mowing). In that case, they can be removed by road crews or the police. They cannot be placed on interstates or along on- and off-ramps.
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. I see an illegally placed sign. Can I remove it?
Not unless it’s yours.
State law is clear: The only folks who can remove a sign are (1) the campaign that placed it, (2) the property owner, or (3) law enforcement or highway crews.
All signs must be removed from common land by the second Friday following an election. They can stay on private property forever if 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 roadside political signs work?
If they don’t, a lot of money is being wasted. In local races, buying these signs is often the biggest single campaign cost.
The cost depends on their type – coroplast? posterboard? polybag? hand-scrawled on an old pizza box? – as well as the number of colors used, whether they include art, and the number of signs bought at one time. The cheapest signs can cost less than $1 apiece, plus another buck or so for the wire holder. Big signs can cost $20 apiece or more.
People certainly think signs do influence the electorate, otherwise we wouldn’t see all the news stories about candidates complaining that their signs were stolen. But I know of only one effort to scientifically study their effectiveness.
A paper 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, as well as a campaign directed against a candidate. Signs were placed in some precincts and not in others for each race.
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 it seems they do work. A little bit. Sometimes. Probably.
Q: Is there anything useful to do with these signs once electioneering is done, assuming the campaign doesn’t want them?
A few things, I think.
Turn them inside out and you can use them to advertise your next garage sale. If they’re plastic, they make passable snow sleds for kids. The wire supports are useful for propping up tomato plants in the garden. They do an OK job replacing a broken window pane in the barn until you can get to the hardware store.