The winners and losers of the 2020 campaign season have a post-Election Day chore in common: they are required to remove their signs from public view relatively soon after the polls close.
Some candidates pluck up their signs quickly. Others take their time or wait until someone else does the job — or Mother Nature claims them as her own. Weather is already making short work of the flimsy messages. Windstorms on Nov. 13 and Nov. 15 sent smaller signs flying and bashed larger ones, such as the ubiquitous sheet metal banners of unsuccessful judge candidate Aaron Bushur, into warped accordions nestled in sagebrush.
The intact signs harvested by candidates have varied fates. They may become material for backyard planters, patches for leaky gardening sheds, or happy homes for honey bees. They may be stacked in garages like oversized playing cards, awaiting another chance to be dealt out to the community in the ongoing game of democracy.
“I put up all my signs myself and I take them all down myself,” said Sparks Councilman Donald Abbott, an incumbent who won his race against challenger Wendy Stolyarov for the city’s Ward 1 seat. “One of my buddies who has a truck helped me with three big signs, but otherwise I do everything myself, including managing my own campaign. I like being directly involved.”
Sparks requires campaign signs be taken down within 10 days after the election. Reno has a five-day requirement, while signs placed on property in unincorporated Washoe County are supposed to come down once the election is over. Although there are sanctions attached to non-compliance, officials said those are rarely, if ever, invoked.
Some candidates plant their own
Abbott dropped off about 90 signs at supporters’ businesses and homes prior to the election and he posted them at high-traffic locations with permission from the private property owners. He made the rounds to retrieve them last week. He said about 20 percent of the people kept their signs. He stored the rest in his garage for his next campaign.
Before Election Day, Abbott also replaced some signs that had been stolen or vandalized. “When your face is out there, some people (using black markers) treat it as a canvas,” he said. “You can become the Devil or a pirate… or Hitler.”
He’s going to display one of his vandalized signs. “On one that was at Casale’s (Halfway Club restaurant), someone gave me a middle name, so it read ‘Donald LAME Abbott,’” he said. “I thought it was funny. I went back in about a month and someone had changed ‘LAME,’ so then it read ‘DON’T BLAME Abbott. That one is going on my wall… But still, these are $20 signs and for a small campaign, vandalism can cost the candidate money that is better spent on something else.”
Signage can be expensive
Abbott’s campaign covered just one ward in Sparks, but for candidates in races stretching across larger geographic areas, dealing with signs requires a lot more effort.
Alexis Hill, who defeated incumbent Marsha Berkbigler in the contest for the Washoe County Commission’s District 1 seat, said she has already taken down nearly all of her campaign signs. She said volunteers in Incline Village helped collect her signs near Lake Tahoe. In Reno, she let supporters know she would pick them up, they could drop them off, or they could keep them.
She also hangs on to returned signs in preparation for a future campaign. In many cases, Hill delivered the signs to anyone who requested them. “It’s a great way to get to know all the neighborhoods in the district,” she said. Hill said direct-mail advertising takes up the lion’s share of campaign budgets, but she spent a lot on her signs, which featured a color photo, because she worked with a local unionized print shop rather than using less-expensive alternatives available online.
The Ironworkers Union, which endorsed Hill, installed her larger signs and also removed them within a week after Election Day.
Bees will buzz among Hill’s signs
The people who kept her signs are repurposing them. “One person, who requested a large sign, is keeping it for use in beekeeping,” Hill said. “And I guess a lot of the wooden signs are good for gardening, for building boxes for plants. I’m fine with that.”
Hill and Abbott said they avoided placing their signs on vacant land near shopping centers, where forests of colorful messages often spring up during every campaign season. “We didn’t do that,” Hill said. “It doesn’t make sense. There are so many, it’s too much to read. Those forests of signs just create visual pollution at that point.”
Those gatherings of signs grow when one candidate puts up a sign and then supporters of the candidate’s opponent place theirs next to them. After awhile, the tit-for-tat placements may develop into a “sign war.”
No winners in local ‘sign wars’
Abbott’s advice: “Don’t get into a sign war. It’s more stress you don’t need in your life. I don’t get into it.” Sign wars escalate when one candidate’s signs are put up in front of an opponent’s, kicking off a placement battle that can get heated.
That’s what happened in October, in the race for Washoe County Family Court judge. Supporters of the incumbent, Judge Bridget Robb, complained that someone placed a campaign sign for her opponent, Reno attorney Aaron Bushur, in front of large Robb sign, blocking it from view.
In his “Ask Joe” segment on Oct. 13 , Channel 4 News anchor Joe Hart quoted each of the candidates who said the other had blocked views of their respective signs. Hart noted that there is no law prohibiting putting one sign in front of another, but remarked that, “I think we all wish it wouldn’t come to that, especially in a race for judge.”
Bushur lost the race to Robb, for whom he once worked as a clerk. His signs may have been the most ubiquitous of the local 2020 campaign season. They ranged from four-foot-tall, yards-wide banners to orange brief-case-size signs supported by two thin stakes. The smaller signs popped up in widely-spaced rows alongside many of the county’s major roadways. Some of the large signs had his picture and text, but the smaller ones had only Bushur’s last name as their message.
Many of his signs were still up as of Nov. 15, misshapen by wind or sent airborne by gale-force gusts. Bushur could not be reached for comment via email or phone calls last week.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally posted on Nov. 14 and updated on Nov. 15.