Sunday March 1, 2015; 04:30 pm EST
Sings of the Times
Yard signs make your first introduction to many candidates
You may not agree with me in welcoming political signs as a sign of the arriving season.
I can’t claim to love political signs quite the way I do spring’s greening or autumn’s gilding, but I do relish the spice of seasonal change — even electoral season.
I like political signs for other reasons, too. They’re news, another thing I love. Yard signs make our first introduction to many candidates. Even in the age of the Internet, signs often go up before press releases go out. Or political visitors knock on their first door. Few candidates equal the intrepid Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold in beginning door-to-door visits years before election day. Because of yard signs, you’re likely to know the name before its bearer knocks on your door.
I take these signs personally, as if the names they proclaim really do emanate a bit of the magic of the person behind them. News and the magic of naming work together to draw me into the play of the seasonal political game. Knowing a person’s name and coveted office — the two facts that are the essential message of the political sign — puts me on the lookout for more ways of getting to know the person behind the sign. I get to hunting calendars for speaking events where I can meet the name holder and newspaper stories where I can learn the candidate’s motivations, values and views.
As an editor, the signs put me into the race journalistically, whetting my interest to make the stories I’ll write between now and November — stories I hope you’ll read.
As the oldest form of surrogate campaigning, standing in for the person they name, political signs enjoy the protection of American custom and law.
In 1994, all nine Supreme Court justices agreed that a city ordinance banning yard signs violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech.
“Displaying a sign from one’s own residence often carries a message quite distinct from placing the sign someplace else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.
As a sign-posting neighbor told me, “ours probably tells the rest of the community who not to vote for.”
Political signs are clues to my neighbors’ values. Whether or not I agree with their choices, I admire their eagerness to get involved, pushing the dialogue in American decision-making.
It’s a heated dialogue we’ve got going this year, starting with the Tea Partiers’ DON’T TREAD ON ME signs bearing the traditional coiled snake. Most of the earliest signs I’ve seen have named conservative candidates. On the Eastern Shore at least, Andy Harris is winning the sign war in the First Congressional District. In Southern Maryland’s Fifth Congressional District, perennial Republican candidate Collins Bailey has the early lead in signs, just as another perennial Republican, Phil Bissett, has it in Anne Arundel County’s Seventh Council District.
“I haven’t put up a third of the signs I’m going to,” reports Bissett, who adds that the next round of signs will proclaim a SMALL GOVERNMENT message honed in polling.
My neighbors, John and Joan Hines, were early posters of their support for Bailey.
Putting up signs early and often is another right we enjoy as Americans.
County and municipality laws restricting how early you could display political signs on your own property were struck down after a challenge by the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, that organization’s Debbie Jeon tells me.
Putting signs on anybody else’s property takes permission, and putting signs anywhere “from utility pole to utility pole” on state roads is forbidden. County roads have their own restrictions on size and placement of signs.
Tradition and protections notwithstanding, campaign staffs probably don’t share my liking for political signs. The bigger the sign the less they like them, for they’ve got to haul the heavy property around and force them, by way of post hole digger, into mid-summer’s parched earth.
After our primary election September 14, the losers will have to dig their signs out, leaving space and holes for a new crop of candidates to teach you their names before November 2’s general election.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
editor and publisher; firstname.lastname@example.org
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