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Let’s ignore signs, get down to real political issues

SHARE Let’s ignore signs, get down to real political issues

It's an American ritual. As soon as fall is in the air, the campaign signs sprout like weeds on lawns and in vacant lots. Then, inevitably, some people begin to see them more literally as weeds and think they have an obligation to pick them.

This is where the Constitution runs smack into the good ol' American competitive spirit. Some folks, it seems, can tolerate only so much free speech, particularly if it comes from their political rivals.It's also the point at which people ought to pause and come to grips with how we make electoral decisions in this country. How do you decide for whom to vote in a local election? By how many times you see a person's name on a lawn sign?

Candidates seem to think so, which is why they think nothing of spending entire days papering neighborhoods with their names and faces. It's also why they think nothing of sabotaging the other candidate's lawn signs. If frost is on the pumpkin and the leaves are turning colors, I know for a certainty I'm about to get calls from politicians complaining that someone has been stealing their signs.

But this year something marvelous happened. Salt Lake County Commission candidate Mark Shurtleff was observed pulling down a sign belonging to his rival. Not only that, he admitted to it, saying his opponent had taken down one of Shurtleff's signs, moved the post across the street and attached his own sign to it. He was merely putting things back the way he thought they had been originally.

That explanation was enough to get him out of any criminal charges. It also drew this terse solution to the problem of disappearing signs from his opponent, Mike Reberg: "Put up more signs."

For his part, Reberg denies taking any signs, but both candidates claim hundreds of their signs have disappeared.

The remarkable thing isn't that Shurtleff took down a sign. It is that he readily admitted to it. This may be one of the most honest things you'll hear from a politician before Election Day.

Really, though, sign theft is hardly worth getting in a sophomoric snit over. Actually, it has become somewhat of a national sport. Consider this:

In Phoenix last month, a disc jockey at KKFR-FM promised free concert tickets to the listener who could collect the most campaign signs and take them to a van waiting on a street corner. A frantic citywide harvest ensued. No one knows for sure who won because the police intervened. Tampering with campaign signs is a misdemeanor in Arizona, something the station hadn't considered. According to the Arizona Republic, police confiscated 414 signs belonging to 70 candidates.

The most disturbing part of that story is that the DJ staged the contest on the day after the primary election. He apparently was unaware that a general election would be held in November and that many candidates still had use for their signs.

In Florida, a candidate for county judge claims a man posing as a city official told a restaurant owner to remove the candidate's signs because they were posted illegally. That one gets an "A" for creativity, if nothing else.

In Atlanta last August, state Senate candidate Bart Ladd was in the process of yanking a sign belonging to his opponent, Gerald Bartels, when one of Bartels' supporters jumped out of the bushes and snapped a photo. The moral of the story is to always check the bushes.

And, finally, in New Jersey two candidates for state Senate are locked in a battle of words after one caught the other's campaign workers stealing signs. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, the candidate accused of stealing said, "This is a distraction from the issues people care about and will vote on."

Which brings me to my point. Lawn signs have very little to do with the issues people care about. They are there for one reason only - to burn the name of a candidate into the minds and psyches of the voting public. That way, when ignorant, apathetic slobs enter the voting booth, they'll be unable to control the involuntary impulse to put a mark next to the name they have seen the most. Besides that, they're a lot cheaper than buying a radio ad or a billboard.

I have a solution. This year, let's all study the issues, attend debates and seek out candidates with our questions. Let's get so involved in local government - not just the congressional races but the state and local races, right down to the one for county auditor - that lawn signs won't matter.

After all, if the voters became more sophisticated and dignified, it would force the politicians to do the same.