Democratic Underground

Preventing "Mutual Assured Signage"
December 3, 2001
by Nathan Rudy

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During elections, campaigns send out the volunteers and the occasional paid staffer to stick metal wires in the ground and dress up medians and rights-of-way with blue, red, green, yellow and other festive political signs. The names emblazoned across no longer register after the grass disappears from view, but more crop up in a day or two.

When there is no more room, a college kid or two run out in the dark of night and selectively remove a color or design, sure that she is somehow delivering a plurality to her candidate. Sometimes they get caught, and it is the talk of the political world.

At the end of a cycle many of the political missives are removed legitimately, mostly because local campaigns want to reuse the metal wires next year. Some, however, are missed. These lonely leftovers litter the sides of the roads for a year, maybe two, until the local adopt-a-road campaign finds it laying in a catch basin or tangled on a gas meter. The plastic signs hang in trees like so many children's smiley face balloons, the paper ones lie scuffed on the side of the road like the a fast pitch batters' box.

The politics of "Mutual Assured Signage"

No voter drives by a collection of highway signs for scores of candidates for dozens of offices and decides whom they're going to vote for. Shundler's signs far outnumbered McGreevy's, but passers by saying, "Hey, there's a lot of signs for Bret Shundler," did not translate into a big victory.

Signs are great motivators for volunteers, but the only thing they motivate volunteers to do is put out more signs. Workers who could be handing out literature at train stations, going door to door in persuadable districts or stuffing thank-you letters to campaign contributors are spending their time in a wasteful effort to match their opponents.

It's like the arms race of the post World War II era, sort of Mutually Assured Signage. Candidate A puts out 50 signs, so Candidate B freaks out and orders 75 signs be stuck. Candidate A throws out a hundred more, so Candidate B tosses in a few score while acquiring a new weapon: sloganeering bumper stickers to cover Candidate A's signs! Candidate B continues putting out signs solely to keep up with Candidate A, the original idea of winning an election obscured behind 18 inch posters. On and on it goes, escalating to no effect other than to create more signs.

Multiply this exponentially by the number of elected offices out there - Governor, State Senate, State Assembly, Sheriff, Freeholder and Council in North Plainfield - and suddenly there are more signs than places to put them. Potential voters can't make out one candidate's name from another, and surely can't figure out who is running for what.

If the New Jersey political world were to join in a SALT II type pact - call it Sign II - to limit the production, testing and distribution of signs, we'd all benefit. The money, volunteer time and paper used in the Sign Wars could be used to actually contact and talk to potential voters and work on policy issues to address the problems facing New Jersey.

The Sign II treaty: simple legislation that works

In North Plainfield we have a real simple ordinance that prevents Mutual Assured Signage, saving the campaigns and taxpayers money. Here's how it works: If you want to put up a political lawn sign on a property, you have to get the property owner's permission. Otherwise, you can't put up a sign. Not in a right-of-way, not on a grassy median, not in a park. Nowhere but on properties where the owner has granted permission.

If a sign goes up in a public right-of-way, it gets taken down. If enough of them go up, the campaign is summonsed. I know, because a candidate I supported got caught three years ago and had to come to Tuesday night court.

There are other towns that have the same ordinance as we do - Linden for one - and I encourage any of the 566 municipalities out there who haven't enacted one to do it before the next cycle comes around. If it could be done on a statewide level, I'd support that, too.

Why it makes sense, besides getting the signs off the road

The way it is now, anyone with money and a couple 18-year-old volunteers can plaster an entire county in a week. It is no measure of any voter support, or their chances in the election. The candidate gets the boost of seeing her name all over the place, but it is all illusion.

But with Sign II the only signs that go up are represented by supporters. The more supporters a candidate has, the more advertising she gets. The amount of money a campaign has doesn't impact the number of signs driving voters see, just the amount of support.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, in order to get signs up campaigns have to talk to their constituents. If a candidate or campaign can't answer questions or come up with solutions to local problems, the voters will know it. If they can, they'll get signs and votes.

The end result will be campaigns that spend less money on fewer signs while contacting potential voters directly. What a dream!