County auditor says political signs are part of island tradition | Guest column

Submitted by F. Milene Henley

San Juan County Auditor

It’s election time, and with that comes the annual crop of political signs, popping up like pesky dandelions across the countryside. We’ve been fortunate in San Juan County. A well-meaning ordinance – now detoothed by a recent court action – combined with strong local sentiment has kept our sign infection at a minimum.

Political signs, according to San Juan County land use code, are permitted, so long as they are put up not more than 45 days before an election and taken down within three days after. It seemed like a good idea back in 1998, when the ordinance was adopted. Nobody wanted to see the landscape permanently blighted with signs, especially in a community such as ours, a place people come for the natural environment and rural appearance. Constraining signs to a well-defined time period seemed like a reasonable compromise.

Political signs do serve a purpose. In a rural area, where radio or TV spots aren’t practical, yard signs may be the only way for a candidate to get his or her name out there. Anecdotal stories about the unexpected election of candidates with no qualifications but familiar-sounding names suggest that people are, indeed, more likely to vote for a name they’ve seen often than for one they’ve never seen.

Political strategists say that supporters love political signs. Supporters of a measure or a candidate may not have time to campaign, but they can show their allegiance by sticking a sign in their yard. A corollary of this phenomenon is that some voters are influenced less by the content of signs than by their location. If someone they respect is proudly sporting a yard sign, the voter may be more inclined to vote the same way.

Other political strategists opine that signs have little, if any, effect on how people vote. The small effect they do have may be offset by the votes they lose because of other voters’ distaste for signs. Resources spent buying and locating signs could better be used, many campaign managers argue, on doorbelling and direct mail.

As an administrator of elections, I like yard signs because they remind people there’s an election coming up. Not so much in some mainland locations, where signs go up 18 months before an election. But San Juan County’s law – given recent events, let’s just call it a “guideline” – because it limits the duration of the signage, effectively alerts people that it’s almost time to vote.

Of course, the reason courts have struck down San Juan County’s, as well as other’s, political signage laws is that limiting signage infringes on free speech. Like babies and apple pie, free speech is something you don’t mess with.

San Juan County’s political sign ordinance has never been enforced. Still, it has become a time-honored local tradition to limit the amount of time political signs are displayed, and to politely remove them as soon as possible after an election is over. We may someday look back on those days wistfully. Or maybe a short-lived law will have created an enduring local tradition. Only time, and candidates, will tell.