Some Thoughts on Stealing Signs

Toronto baseball fans hold up sign claiming that they are stealing signs

Toronto baseball fans make fun of reports that the Blue Jays are stealing signs. In politics, thieves keep it quiet.

True story from 2010: the day before Election Day, on the way dropping off my daughter at elementary school, I stuck a campaign sign for Barbara Boxer alongside of Brea Boulevard.  (I had been helping run the Brown campaign, such as it was, here in OC, and since Boxer had had even less of one here I wanted to make a gesture on her behalf.)  Up to and back from the school, five minutes tops, and I passed by the spot where I had posted the sign on my way home.  Empty space.  It took less than five minutes for someone to undo my three minutes of effort parking, walking, and posting it.  That’s a pretty lousy ratio.

I paid more attention than usual this past spring to the ever-changing terrain of political campaign signs along the streets of North Orange County. As (full disclosure here!) a candidate myself this year, who like many others did not spend money on signs in an uncontested primary, I felt some pangs of regret at driving down the street noting the presence of the names of my fellow candidates but not mine. Three things helped to ease my sadness:

  1. Plenty of research shows that signs don’t matter — or as know-it-all consultants will opine, “signs don’t vote.” (My response to that last little witticism: neither do television ads and glossy mailers and slate doorhangers, but you don’t see people slagging them, eh?)
  2. The opponent in my race, State Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, didn’t have signs up in my city of Brea either. He had one sign up forlornly hammered into a hillside nearly across from where Occupy Fullerton had set up its camp — in fact, as of last week it was still there — but that was it. Of course, people reported to me from the other places in the district that he had plenty of signs up elsewhere, but at least I didn’t have to look at them.
  3. Signs get stolen — a lot. Every day, now watching more closely than usual, I’d see the terrain change — sometimes by addition but often by subtraction.  Even signs hung high would disappear.

I want to be frugal with the contributions of my donors, to treat them the way I’d want my own campaign donations to be treated.  I find the notion of spending campaign money on something that’s barely going to last a day — or five minutes — offensive.  This is especially a problem for Democrats in Republican-dominated areas, first because the minority is often going to face political opposition and second because, in my opinion, Republicans are more likely to bend or break the rules confident that they’ll be able to get away with it.   (And someone noted recently on Facebook, if Obama had even $1 deposited in an account in the Cayman Islands, we’d never hear the end of it.)

I’ve never stolen a campaign sign in my life and have instructed campaign workers under my supervision that anyone in the campaign who ever did so they would be out on their butt in no time.  Yet, somehow, some people get away with it routinely.

One “solution” to the problem of stolen signs is just to give in to the cruel vagaries of reality and just not buy signs.  This is considered to be “unserious” — especially by the sign-printing companies who are constantly filling my inbox with pitches for me to buy signs, but also by observers who think that having signs up is the way to show people that you’re in the game.  (Stealing those signs as quickly as possible is apparently a way for one’s opponent to demonstrate that you’re not in the game.)

I realize that this is a small problem compared to many of those addressed here and in other esteemed local blogs, but now being a candidate it irks me more than ever before.  I have people sending me $5, $10, to show their solidarity — money that some of them can’t really afford.  While I’m willing to take a chance spending it on flyers and mailers that may not be read by their intended recipients, I don’t like spending it on something that thugs can just rip off and throw away.

I don’t have a solution to offer right now — so I’m just opening the topic here for discussion.  What are your experiences with posting campaign signs in OC?  How long have they lasted?  How quickly have they disappeared — and under how serious a set of conditions?

Beyond that, do you have any solutions in mind for this problem?  It’s the legal right of candidates to put up signs, often specifically set by local ordinance, but we seem not to take this right that seriously.  Signs are relatively cheap.  If the main ways to reach voters turn out to be expensive glossy mailers and electronic ads rather than relatively inexpensive signs, that favors wealthier campaigns by taking away “the equalizer.”  Isn’t that a problem?

City police I’ve spoken to say, reasonably enough, that enforcing the law is not a high priority.  OK — but the effect of that means that candidates can’t reach voters through this relatively inexpensive means.  If cities and counties can’t handle the problem, should we take it into our own hands?

I’ve literally had people suggest to me that signs should have webcams watching them at all times — recording or livestreamed — or GPS, or should be covered with hairspray to pick up fingerprints, or should be equipped with small fragile vials of skunk juice mixed with ultraviolet dye that would break when the signs were moved and mark the miscreants who stole them — but all of that seems extreme (as well as expensive.)  Yet the default position — saying that “boys will be boys” and ignoring the suppression of free speech — doesn’t seem acceptable either.  It may be a little thing, but it’s irritating and unfair.

I have been thinking about this for a while and I may a cheaper solution in mind, but before presenting it I want to read more about your experiences and opinions.  (Note: “you’re not going to win anyway,” for those of you who like to tell me that, doesn’t really address the problem — and if you don’t think that this is a problem, you’re part of the problem.)

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)