"Mutual Assured Signage"
by Nathan Rudy
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
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
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
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
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