The ‘very American yard sign tradition is being disrupted’: Douglas County party leaders lament political sign thefts

photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World Photos

At left, yard signs in support of Democratic candidates running in the Nov. 3, 2020, general election line the street in front of a home in Lawrence on Oct. 21, 2020. At right, signs in support of several Republican candidates stand in the yard of a Lawrence home the same day.

Tuck the kids in for bed, let the dog out one more time and collect the campaign signs from the front yard: It’s become part of a nightly ritual for some local voters who display support for their candidates by daylight.

Leaders of the local Democrats and GOP told the Journal-World that many voters have reported signs going missing, some repeatedly. Both said that some voters bring their yard signs inside every night to prevent them from being stolen. And although they cited different reasons, they say 2020 is a little different from previous presidential election years.

David Miller, volunteer co-chair of the Douglas County Republican campaign for 2020, said the party had a meeting of committee members last week. He said several of the members reported they’d had their signs stolen, and two of them said that their Trump-Pence signs were stolen at least five times.

Miller said he wasn’t sure whether there were more reports of such thefts this year than years previous, but he did say he heard from committee members something he’d never heard before.

“Committee members said they would not have a Trump sign because they feared for their property,” Miller said via email. “They have seen the widespread riots and destruction across America, mostly caused by radical leftists and antifa and they feared for their own well-being. In 5 decades of political involvement in Douglas county, I have never heard that kind of fear expressed.”

Patricia Willer, chair of the Douglas County Democrats, said that party has had a “troubling increase” in the number of Democratic signs being stolen this season.

“We have had a variety of reports that range from all Democratic candidate signs on the entire city block being stolen to, very commonly, Biden-Harris signs being stolen when other signs on the property are not touched,” she said via email.

She said many voters have had to replace their signs multiple times, but they’re willing to do so.

“I take that as a measure of voters’ determination to show their support for the candidates on the ballot they will believe will bring about the changes we need,” Willer said. “However, it is sad and disturbing that this very American yard sign tradition is being disrupted.”

Lawrence police say it’s difficult to compare this election year’s reports with previous years, but the department has been “regularly receiving notification of stolen campaign signs,” and that’s typical during election seasons.

Lt. David Ernst, of LPD’s public affairs unit, said if people observe someone removing a sign, LPD would encourage them to call dispatch at 785-832-7509 and provide a description of the person removing the sign and any associated vehicle. Sign owners can also file police reports with desk officers if they’d like to.

Ernst said that suspect identification could be difficult in these matters. He said LPD would encourage sign owners who have exterior surveillance systems to place their yard signs in view of those cameras.

He also said the department was not aware of any calls for service connected to altercations stemming from someone attempting to remove a political sign. However, “We highly discourage anyone from intervening and would like to remind the public it is possible a city employee could be removing the sign per city code 5-1819,” he said via email.

The Associated Press recently reported that a city worker in Commerce Township, Mich., needed stitches after attempting to remove a political sign that was placed too close to the road. The bottom of the sign had been rigged with razor blades, according to the report.

Ernst said LPD is not aware of any similar incidents here.

Signs in the right of way?

City code forbids placing any signs in the public right of way, which is land that “typically extends 10 feet back from the edge of a street but can vary widely across the city,” according to the city’s website.

Changes to city code in 2017 and 2018 modified restrictions on signs from being message-based to based on zoning, land use or lot conditions, according to a document on the city’s website that explains the changes.

The ordinance authorizes the city’s code official to remove and dispose of any temporary signs found on public property or in the public right of way. During the 2016 general election season, the city wasn’t removing signs from the right of way as long as they weren’t a hazard to drivers, the Journal-World reported.

In fact, if the city code official determines that you’ve violated sign ordinances, the official can issue a citation requiring you to appear in Lawrence Municipal Court, and you could face a fine of $100 to $250. Putting up a permanent sign without a permit could bring even steeper penalties — fines of $500 to $1,000.

All temporary signs, regardless of their message, are treated the same way, city spokesperson Porter Arneill said via email.

“Temporary signs are removed from the right of way as inspection staff come across them, or upon reports from the public,” Arneill said.

If people want a temporary sign removed from the public right of way, Arneill said they could report it as a code violation via the city’s website,

In general, most residential-use lots can have up to three temporary signs at a time, or four for corner lots; however, the ordinance loosens that limit during election seasons.

“Signs placed on private lots for 50 days prior to and 10 days after the date of a political election, referendum or ballot measure are exempt from the limit on number of signs,” the city document states.

That means the sign limit lifted on Sept. 13 leading up to the Nov. 3 general election, and signs can stay in the yard until Nov. 13.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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