The roadside campaign sign won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
After a movement by many municipalities across the country to restrict or ban their placement in recent years, campaign signs appear to be making a comeback—even in places where local officials have worked hard to restrict their use.
New laws in states like Arizona and North Carolina have effectively overruled some of the most restrictive local laws on sign placement. And it’s ignited a new battle over where and when candidates and campaigns should be permitted to display them.
“Elections are important and the ability for candidates to get their name out to the public is important,” says North Carolina State Sen. Warren Daniel (R), who spearheaded passage of a recently-enacted state law that permits campaign signs along state roadways, including in some localities where they were previously banned.
The new law, which took effect at the beginning of October, permits the placement of signs in the public right-of-way. Campaigns are now allowed to start placing the signs 30 days before the official start of the state’s early voting window. The signs can legally remain until a week after Election Day.
“The main thing is an inconsistent application of standards across the state,” argues Daniel, who notes that a web of local laws regulating the placement of campaign signs haven’t been enforced consistently. “We wanted a uniform standard instead of different parts of the state deciding.”
For Daniel and other advocates of campaign signs, it’s a First Amendment issue. But for Cary, North Carolina Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, the concern is public safety and the community’s aesthetic features.
“Cary is among the most desirable places to live in the U.S. We don’t allow real estate signs or open house signs,” Weinbrecht says. “It’s contrary to what our town embraces as a value.”
Weinbrecht won reelection earlier this month without the use of signage alongside public roads, which he made a point of during the campaign. Weinbrecht asked local candidates for a pledge to not take advantage of the new state law on placement of political signs.
It’s the same story in several municipalities across the state of Arizona where a recently-enacted state law has overruled local bans on political signs along public roads and in the right-of-way. Localities are now barred from removing campaign signs that are placed within 60 days of a primary election, but the signs must container a disclaimer that lists a name and contact number for the campaign that placed them.
The new law is riling officials in localities like Scottsdale and Mesa, which previously restricted sign placement.
“Under previous law, the signs had to be on the private side of the property line,” says Gordon Sheffield, a zoning administrator for the city of Mesa. Sheffield says the city is concerned about the size of signs blocking the visibility of motorists or blocking pedestrian access.
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce (R), the architect of the state’s controversial anti-immigration law, is currently fighting a recall effort. Part of his district runs through Mesa and the recall has brought hoards of campaign signs along with it. City administrators are using it as a chance to assess how the new law will change the signage landscape. Sheffield says the recall is more like a test run for the new law and local officials will use it to assess next steps.
“We are very concerned about sign clutter,” says Sheffield. “This is one of the main reasons we have a sign ordinance in the first place.”
Building codes in many Arizona municipalities strictly regulate the appearance of buildings, so as not to distract from the natural beauty of the state. And proponents of continued regulation contend the same standard should apply to political signs.
There are also environmental concerns, say supporters of tighter regulations on signage. If signs aren’t picked up after Election Day, they can quickly go from being an eyesore to litter. Communities that are conscious of their image and of the environmental impact view uncontrolled signage as an affront to both.
“Allowing you to put [campaign signs] in the median is a stretch for me,” says Weinbrecht. “They can put them up anywhere on private property, why do they need the median to express their opinion? That’s city property.”
At the very least, new state laws in Arizona and North Carolina have added some urgency to the debate over placement of campaign signs. Legal challenges to the new laws could be on the horizon and the political printers are taking notice.
“Political signs are as American as apple pie,” says Gary Bezella, president of Cross & Oberlie, which manufactures and prints political signs.
Bezella says any regulation on placement of campaign signs should come from candidates and campaigns themselves, rather than states and municipalities. Bezella also says the signage industry has taken note of the environmental worries—his company encourages recycling.
Mike Maier, co-owner of Patriot Signs, says addressing the environmental impact is now much easier.
“We have a totally biodegradable sign that will biodegrade in a landfill,” Maier says.
Opponents of campaign signs along public roadways say they expect the 2012 election will bring the debate over signage to a boil in more localities across the country as campaigns, initiatives and third party groups battle for the attention of voters.