Candidates’ signs raise stakes, then linger as litter
November 6, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
The emerald strip in the center of Northwest Gilman Boulevard is prime real estate for political signs, a landscaped median exposed to thousands of vehicles each day.
Unfortunately for candidates, city code prohibits campaign operatives from turning the median — and others around Issaquah — into a politician’s paradise in the run-up to Election Day.
Some passers-by regard political signs as litter, just another piece of detritus from a long and acrimonious campaign season. Others see the placards as grassroots organizing at the actual grassroots, a First Amendment affirmation.
Michele Forkner, code compliance officer for the city, treats the signs as a necessary but messy task.
Under city code, planting signs on landscaped medians is prohibited. Campaigns can — and do — crowd rights of way along major streets, but Forkner is quick to collect placards planted in unauthorized areas.
Campaigns get a week after Election Day to remove the signs, per city code. Then, as soon as the deadline passes, Forkner tools around Issaquah in a city pickup, on the hunt for rogue signs. The city does not remove signs from private property.
Just before Election Day, Forkner collected forbidden signs from the Northwest Gilman Boulevard median and, moments after she tossed the contraband into the truck bed and left, learned more signs just reappeared along the same stretch.
The removal effort is apolitical, but Forkner said uprooting political signs sometimes results in irate calls from partisans.
‘The good ones have as little as possible’
The state Department of Transportation outlaws political signs — and other temporary signs — from state rights of way, because illegal signs can limit motorists’ sight distance, and not to mention litter the roadside.
Pat O’Leary, Department of Transportation highway advertising program manager, said illegal signs do not pop up often and landowners often do a good job on removal after Election Day.
October is the time campaigns bombard public spaces around the state in a pitch to sway undecided voters.
Many signs stuck in medians and yards come from political sign design guru Art Boruck’s Seattle shop, Boruck Printing & Silkscreening.
“I always get the first or second check out of a campaign, most of the time,” he said. “That’s one of the first things that they do.”
In the most recent election, Boruck created campaign signs for state Rep. Marcie Maxwell, D-Renton, and other legislative candidates, according to state Public Disclosure Commission filings.
“The smart ones just give me their name and what they’re running for and maybe an idea of color, and let me go with it,” Boruck said.
The formula for success — or at least a snappy sign — is simple. The blueprint marries bold colors and easy-to-read sans serif fonts. In the Evergreen State, green is a no-no, because the shade blends into the Western Washington landscape.
“The good ones have as little as possible — just the guy’s name and what he’s running for,” Boruck said. “They’re good for name recognition. That’s about it. You want nice, big letters that people can see driving 40 or 50 mph, and put it in their head. A lot of these guys want to put slogans on them and all that stuff, but that just takes away from being able to see the person’s name out there.”
‘There’s a few hundred bucks sitting there’
Between the major political parties, Boruck sees little difference in design. Democrats, however, often favor materials purchased from a union shop.
Recent changes in the political process altered the way Boruck does business. The longtime printer laments the rise of online outlets offering candidates DIY signs. The transition to all-mail elections rejiggered the calendar, a shift to consultant-driven political culture changed sign design.
“I used to deal mostly with the candidates themselves,” he said. “You used to walk in here and the mayor would be in here, and senators. Everybody liked to come to Art and talk to him, but nowadays it’s all consultants.”
Boruck offers a hint to tell if a sign came from out-of-state: The interloper placards arrive made from materials unable to withstand the Pacific Northwest damp and rain. Proper political signs start as sheets of corrugated plastic or sturdy paper.
The medium is traditional, but not cheap. Stakes cost between 50 cents and $1 apiece. Signs run from $3 and $4 apiece, depending on the material and the amount of color used.
“You look at those medians with all those signs, and there’s a few hundred bucks sitting there,” Boruck said.
‘I recognize that name from a sign’
The signs’ effectiveness, like everything else during the long campaign season, is up for debate.
In 2008, researchers Todd Makse and Anand Edward Sokhey studied homes displaying political signs in Franklin County, Ohio — a bellwether area home to Columbus and Ohio State University. The researchers studied the correlation between sign placement and voter behavior.
“We’re actually pretty skeptical of the notion that signs actually do influence other people,” Makse, a political science assistant professor at Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna University, said in a recent interview.
The effort, perhaps, suggests a candidate is better organized if he or she blankets the landscape beneath signs. Simple name recognition can sway last-minute voters on Election Day.
“At a very visceral level, when you step in a voting booth and there are two candidates, and you have no idea who they are, maybe there are some people who think, ‘Oh, I recognize that name from a sign. I’ll pick them,’” Makse said.
The placards can also prod people to learn more about a candidate, although Makse doubts political signs’ ability to motivate voters.
“I’m not saying that it never influences anybody,” he said. “I guess we have an ideal that a person would see a yard sign and say, ‘I wonder who that is. Let me Google them and find something else out about them.’ We’re skeptical that there’s too much of that going on.”