It’s hard to remember the first time I heard someone complain about the theft of political signs. That’s how far back it goes.
When I was a kid growing up in Stokes County, that kind of thing seemed to happen all the time. Folks talked about it, but didn’t give it much thought beyond that. It was a cost of doing business kind of thing, I suppose.
That’s because stealing signs was perhaps the least of what the political parties had to worry about back then. Fact is, it was far more disconcerting to wake up in the morning and see signs touting names of those running for county board of commissioners, clerk of court, register of deeds, sheriff, state House and Senate, ripped, sliced, defaced, drawn upon, spray-painted, burned, blow torched — in short, scarred by people using any weapon at their disposal short of thermonuclear devices.
That’s how it was at a time in history when folks went to the courthouse on Election Night and the winning party — with its members all likkered up — would burn some image of the losing party in effigy then hoot, holler and I don’t know what all.
I neither encourage nor condone such behavior but old-timers tell me it was a barrel of laughs.
In those days, political signs were often points of contention and shenanigans. One Stokes County election season, and I forget which year, one of the parties erected a big sign made from lumber and placed it on the back of an unhitched flat-bed trailer in bustling downtown Danbury. I suspect the trailer was brought in to ensure greater visibility since this was what would pass for a billboard in a town populated by 170 people on non-court days. It advertised every single candidate the party had running for local offices in November.
Now that I think about it, the year was probably 1972 because I was still riding state-supplied transportation to school. The makeshift billboard was across the street from where I used to catch my bus. Well, one fall morning I looked up and saw that huge sign advertising all those candidates plastered with hundreds of bumper stickers touting the opposing party’s candidates. I laughed out loud at the sight. In retrospect, it had a certain Cameron Indoor Stadium panache common to Duke students when UNC comes to play.
A day or so later, the offending stickers were covered by fresh new signs by the original sign builders. It didn’t take long for the loyal opposition to strike again. This time, when I got to the bus stop, the sign looked like it had been given the once-over with a gigantic ice scraper. Undaunted, the first party again replaced the whole lot with new signs. Less than a week later, I arrived at my spot only to find the charred remains of the billboard forlornly atop a relatively unscathed trailer.
And I remember thinking, “this must be what grownups mean when they say ‘things are getting out of hand.’”
Again, I neither encourage, nor condone such behavior. I simply acknowledge that it happened and still does. I know so because I can’t recall a major election season going by without some complaint about damaged or stolen signs — mainly stolen ones these days.
Pretty childish really — and illegal. Stealing, vandalizing, defacing or unlawfully removing a lawfully placed political sign in North Carolina is a Class 3 misdemeanor. The maximum punishment is 20 days in jail. Fines for Class 3 misdemeanor convictions can be as high as $200.
Is it really worth all that?
The deal is, though, not many people get caught because they have to be seen doing the deed to get a charge. Then there’s the matter of whether the theft or damage to a sign rises to the level of a criminal act. Randy Jones, the spokesman for the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office said sometimes signs disappear simply because the state has to mow right of way areas along public roads. The Department of Transportation removes some signs and collects them for candidates to pick up later.
So far this election season has been pretty “low key” in the county, Jones said. The Sheriff’s Office usually gets a few calls a year, and had some in 2010 But there have been no reported thefts of signs to date. “Not that I’m trying to encourage it,” Jones added.
In Burlington, Assistant Police Chief Chris Verdeck says there have been four calls this fall regarding signs. Burlington police also got four calls in the spring during the marriage amendment election.
So far this fall, I have received a call or two. Christina Lippard of Gibsonville, who writes us letters to the editor every so often, said the theft of Romney signs is the talk of GOP circles locally. Steve Carter of Burlington, who ran for Board of Education two years ago, says Romney signs are disappearing from his neighborhood. And a Twin Lakes resident said her signs advertising Becky Mock for Register of Deeds went missing. She said others at Twin Lakes report similar incidents. She thought we needed to give it an editorial THUMBS DOWNon our Saturday editorial page.
And we did.
But my hunch is, people who engage in such activity aren’t much into reading. They sure don’t have any common sense.