While on a late night drive with her friends, Candace* spotted a political sign placed by the side of the road. As a rush of adrenaline shot through her, she pulled her car over. She didn’t like the candidate on the sign and made a spur of the moment decision to steal it. She had never stolen a sign before, but she knew friends who had, and she had seen many people take signs on social media. Candace wasn’t old enough to vote in the November election, and wanted to act on her political beliefs in one of the only ways she felt she could. She ripped the sign out of the ground, and stuffed it in her trunk. Candance was aware that taking signs from private property is illegal, but at the moment, she wanted to make a point of her political beliefs. Candace was never caught for stealing that sign.
As the November election draws closer, many people, like Candace, have stolen yard signs. Yard signs have served an important role in elections and help spread awareness for candidates or display political messages. It is a common occurrence during election season to pass busy intersections which are overflowing with signs. Candidates in both local and national elections have overwhelming numbers of signs along the roadways. Opposing signs are often seen clumped together in an attempt to give an impression of community support for one candidate over the other. The presence of these signs in the community have had both negative and positive effects but their impact has caused divisions.
Bigger candidates often have volunteers who will place signs in an attempt to portray popularity within a community. Currently, the most common yard signs are Biden and Trump signs due to the upcoming presidential election. Oftentimes, they are mixed in with political signs supporting other candidates running for smaller positions. There are also signs that support movements such as Black Lives Matter, essential worker support, and LGBTQ+ pride. Yard signs provide a popular platform of political involvement for citizens. Natalie Lessard (‘22) is one of many Durham community members who displays political signs outside of her house. She has proudly displayed an LQBTQ+ ally sign outside of her house for over a year, and recently added a new sign to her front lawn. “It says ‘this is what I stand for and I don’t want to be quiet about it,’” Lessard said. “I just want to show people what I believe in.” Lessard has positively benefited from these signs and enjoys seeing others like them in her neighborhood.
Displaying these signs on private property is a right given by the First Amendment, and taking a sign from private property is a felony. A citizen’s freedom of speech protects their rights to place messages they believe in around their house or business. The differences in belief between the parties has led to many theft cases. Candance has not been the only person to illegally take lawn signs this election season. “There is so much division right now that even though stealing signs is illegal, people are just trying to do something to get involved,” said Candace. Due to the number of sign thefts the police are no stranger to this issue.
Though they have gotten several reports, the Barrington police department has not caught anyone yet this year stealing a sign off of private property. Since stealing signs is a felony, if someone were to be caught, they could be charged with theft and fined. The fine would depend on the size and expense of the sign stolen. Officer Donald Morse, who has served on the Barrington Police Department for two years, has received many complaints about political signs being stolen and placed. Morse discussed how difficult it is for the police to catch those who take signs off of private property without a way to identify them. “With any theft cases, I recommend everyone to put up cameras on their house so if anything gets taken off your property we can at least put a face on the individual,” Morse said.
Along with signs being stolen, it is also common for previously placed signs to be defaced or for people to place signs from an opposing party on other people’s property to try and spread their political beliefs.
Marlee Yoder (‘21), a Durham residen, experienced two separate instances of signs being placed on her property this year. The first time was last fall when someone who opposed Yoder’s political views placed a “Women for Trump” sign in her yard in the middle of the night. The second time was this past summer. The same person placed an abundance of photos and stickers of President Donald Trump on the trees and rocks on her front lawn. The perpetrator even stuck a pizza box to one of her trees that had a photo of Trump on it.
Yoder, who doesn’t have yard signs at her house, was upset that someone would take it upon themselves to place them there. “I was annoyed that someone would come into my yard and my personal property. I’m fine with people expressing their own personal views, freedom of speech and all that, but they can put those signs in their own yard without trespassing,” said Yoder. Yoder’s family did not contact the police and instead took the signs down themselves.
This behavior is often encouraged on social media. Many platforms have portrayed youth stealing and placing yard signs as a joke which promotes these acts. “Teenagers are more rebellious. We are at an age where we are seeing these trends and think it’s funny,” Yoder said. “I’ve seen Tik Toks where people will put out Trump signs, and then their next door neighbor will put out a Biden sign, and it becomes a competition.”
While placing signs on one’s own private property is legal, the rules change when signs are placed on public property. Since public property does not specifically belong to one citizen and is normally owned either by the town or a business, without permission it is illegal to place signs on public property. Due to citizen’s desires to express their beliefs, this often leads to a multitude of opposing signs placed illegally on public property.
Morse explains that there are different types of issues the police have been encountering with signs on public property. It is illegal to place political signs on property without permission and a perpetrator can be charged with littering from the owner of that property. One recent report Morse had was from a woman who was upset about signs being placed on telephone poles by her house.
“It’s honestly quite the rabbit hole. Usually these people don’t have permission, but there’s nothing that we can prove,” Morse said. Morse explained that officers are not allowed to simply take signs off of places where they may not be allowed. They first have to prove they were placed there illegally.
Morse also explained it can be extremely complicated when someone reports signs taken off of public property because many of them shouldn’t have been placed to begin with. “If you’re not on property you have permission to be on, it’s kind of splitting hairs because you can consider it littering if you don’t have permission. If someone takes down that sign you never had permission to put up, there aren’t any repercussions for them,” Morse said.
While signs generally tend to cause division in a community, they do serve an important purpose in elections by helping candidates gain recognition and support. Garth Svenson, an elected official on the Barrington School Board, has used signs to help him campaign in local elections. Svenson is currently in his seventh year in office and his third term on the board. The first time he campaigned, he used homemade signs by his daughters. Since then, he has used around half a dozen professionally made signs which he places around town before the election. “The biggest thing for a local election is it reminds people to go out and vote. Some people know me but a lot of folks may not, so if they see the school board sign it will remind them that they should care about their school and show up for the election,” Svenson said.
Svenson has positively benefited from his political signs, but he does understand the frustration caused by having so many signs around town. While Svenson doesn’t approve of the negative reactions some people have had to signs, he believes the message is more important than an individual’s feeling towards specific signs. “It’s a necessary evil. You got to allow folks to voice their support and fervor for a specific candidate. As gruesome as it might make the landscape look it shows involvement and engagement in the political process,” Svenson said.
November 3rd rushes towards us and with it the number of signs in communities rise. This, like all elections, is a pivotal moment in our country’s history and with different parties fighting for their beliefs, the tensions in our nation are high. Citizens are being affected by these signs every day in both positive and negative ways. Whether voicing their opinion, campaigning, or ripping signs out of the ground, people are undeniably engaged in this election’s outcome. Political signs have provided a gateway for the public to voice their political ideals and their influence on the community is strong.
*Name changed for anonymity