Campaign signs: The surprising cost and controversy

Campaign signs are cropping up all over as Delaware heads to the September primary

Campaign signs are cropping up all over as Delaware heads to the September primary. Photo by Ken Mammarella

The amazing thing about political candidates’ signs isn’t just how many are displayed on roads and yards.

It’s how much they cost and how much controversy they create.

Signs are critical in getting attention among the 80 or so candidates campaigning in dozens of races in Delaware’s Sept. 15 primary. And those placards will become more rampant leading up to the Nov. 3 election, and even lingering after the vote. 

 

A look at just one race — the Democratic primary for president of New Castle County Council — illustrates many of the issues involved.

“Signs are an important tool of my campaign to reach voters, especially during a pandemic where opportunities to meet with voters are limited,” incumbent Karen Hartley-Nagle wrote in an email. “It’s important to me to reach voters in a way that respects them and keeps them safe and healthy. Signs are a great way to achieve that goal.”

“Lawn signs are king,” opponent Ciro Poppiti, now New Castle County’s register of wills, wrote in an email. “In 2000, when I was working on Chris Coons’ election for County Council president (not coincidentally, the position I am running for now), I learned [that] very important lesson.”

Monique Johns, the third candidate, did not return requests for comment about signs.

 

Hartley-Nagle said that she has spent a “staggering” $14,100 so far on signs and expects to spend more because “they’re disappearing at an alarming rate.” 

Two disappearances in July from Fourth and Adams streets in Wilmington rankle. The people who put up her signs take photos of their work, and while they were putting up more signs, they saw her signs had been “ripped from the fences” they had been secured to and tossed behind them like trash. They photographed signs for Poppiti in the same place that they had earlier placed her signs.

“It is theft,” Hartley-Nagle said. “It is vandalism.” 

Hartley-Nagle supplied photos showing Poppiti’s signs on the fences and hers trashed.

 

Her complaint drew a robust denial from Poppiti. 

“My family and volunteers categorically deny any removal,” he said in an interview. “She can’t beat me on my record. She can’t beat me on her record. This is an attack. It’s how she campaigned. I’m not surprised. I’m angry. We’re not going to be swiftboated on this.”

Plus, he’s lost signs as well. 

“I know Ciro, and I know Karen, and I know that neither one would encourage this,” said Dave Woodside, the Democratic Party chair for New Castle County.

Karen Hartley-Nagle and Ciro Poppetti campaign signs

Incumbent Karen Hartley-Nagle says this photo shows someone tore down her campaign sign. Ciro Poppiti’s showed up in her place, she said.

What the signs say (and don’t)

Candidates generally use two sizes of signs: larger road signs and smaller yard or lawn signs. 

Signs need to stress name recognition, since so many are placed where motorists are driving, rather than stopped. Of the dozen so on a tempting, otherwise-empty hill at the busy intersection of Foulk and Naamans roads in North Wilmington, only one offered a slogan: “the change we want to see.”

A ride through North Wilmington revealed multiple trashed signs boosting other candidates.

 

Hartley-Nagle said she cares so much about the signs that “I drove around looking at them, to see what colors stand out.” Her conclusion: “Dark blue background with white lettering and a red banner in the middle were the result of initial research on color and visibility during the day and at night.”

Most in the Foulk and Naamans group were in those patriotic colors: red, white and (navy) blue.

Poppiti’s signs are blue and gold: “Namely colors traditionally associated with the county and Delaware,” he explained. That was the next most popular color combo in this group.

 

A sign is “a commitment that the household will vote for Poppiti. And it is an endorsement for Poppiti to everyone in the neighborhood. Yes, our focus remains on lawn signs, and to date we have over 500 lawn signs in front of homes throughout the breadth of the county,”  he said.

Hartley-Nagle said that she has about 75 road signs, with another 25 “stolen from the locations they were legally placed.” She received 100 yard signs on Tuesday that will go up.

“The cost of 75 4’x4′ signs, 100 18” x 24” signs, stakes, angle irons, heavy duty fence post, sign ties, sign delivery, labor to put up and take down, gas, and food for the sign guys comes to approximately $14,100,” she wrote in an email.

 

In an interview, she said she pays $10 to put up a sign and another $10 to take it down.

“The sign cost increases as signs are stolen and/or vandalized and replacement signs with the accompanying costs are procured,” she said. “The cost comes out to about $94 a sign.”

The rules of the road

Delaware law limits where road signs can be placed, and that’s monitored by the Delaware Department of Transportation. A map shows where signs are banned to ensure “safer and more attractive” highways.

Political candidates get exemptions, 30 days before and 30 days after elections, to place signs 10 feet or more from the highway shoulder, on the state right of way. All signs are always banned on medians, utility poles, traffic signal poles, traffic signs, bridges, overpasses, medians islands or gore areas, the map indicates.

A gore is “a boundary intended to help organize and protect traffic,” according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

 

DelDOT invites people with questions about the sign policy to call 302-326-4688.

The 30-day rule applies to any election.

This year we had an unprecedented and unanticipated situation, where you could basically hopscotch from June to December,” Woodside said, referring to the presidential primary on July 7, school board elections on July 21, the primary on Sept. 15 and finally the Nov. 3 vote and 30 days beyond that.

 

“The savviest thing that I have ever seen anyone do” is claiming special spots early, he said.

Campaign signs are prominent, and they are draw strong emotions, but they shouldn’t be the end-all, Woodside said.

“There’s an old saying in politics: Signs don’t vote,” he said, explaining that candidates shouldn’t devote all their efforts to signs – although he acknowledged that candidates are outspoken about the usage and disappearance of them.

“It really is all about making contact with voters and engaging with them.”

How to file a sign complaint

A state Department of Elections resource guide offers many ways for people to file complaints about signs. 

  • DelDOT at (800) 652-5600 or (302) 760-2080 or [email protected]
  • New Castle County Land Use Department at (302) 395-5400 or [email protected].
  • Wilmington Constituent Services at (302) 576-2489 or [email protected].
  • Sussex County Constable at (302) 855-7819 or sussexcountyde.gov/county-constable.
  • Other municipalities, community associations and school districts, “to the appropriate authority.” The guide does not specify a way to complain to Kent County.

 


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About the Contributor

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Ken Mammarella

Ken Mammarella is a freelance writer who lives in Wilmington.