Constable: Political signs of the times (and how to get rid of them)

 
 
Posted3/28/2017 5:30 AM
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  • Political signs fill the landscape in front of an early voting location in Elgin. A study shows that these signs help candidates in small elections. More importantly to some folks, Lombard is offering free recycling of campaign signs, starting the day after next Tuesday's elections.

      Political signs fill the landscape in front of an early voting location in Elgin. A study shows that these signs help candidates in small elections. More importantly to some folks, Lombard is offering free recycling of campaign signs, starting the day after next Tuesday's elections. Rick West | Staff Photographer

In last fall's presidential election, it's doubtful a lawn sign in a parkway had the power to sway a single vote from one candidate half the people hated to that candidate hated by the other half of voters. After all, a sign seems so old-fashioned in an era where we can get all our political information from Facebook, Twitter and the Russians.

But in the buildup to Tuesday's local elections, campaign lawn signs remain an American tradition, which, like many American traditions, causes some problems.

"We see these signs sprout like dandelions and it creates a lot of waste in landfills," says David Gorman, assistant director of public works for Lombard. "The bigger problem is when people put them into the curbside recycling."

The corrugated plastic signs are chemically different from typical plastic items that are recycled, so they need special processing, Gorman says. He contacted K. Hoving Companies, a division of Lakeshore Recycling, which will recycle the signs at no cost. Two containers, one for the corrugated plastic signs and one for the metal stands, will be available at Lombard Public Works, 1051 S. Hammerschmidt Ave., in Lombard.

Poet Shel Silverstein once noted that "no one loves a Christmas tree on March the twenty-fifth," and no one likes a political lawn sign on the day after an election. So the Lombard sign-recycling program begins Wednesday, the day after the election, and runs through April 17.

In the meantime, those yard signs actually work to influence your vote in smaller elections. There are lots of factors to consider, including the cost (starting as low as $1 per sign if you order lots of cheaper ones), the time spent on the design, and the effort to assemble the signs and get people to display them. But signs can make a difference in those close races. "It seems that yard signs matter, but they matter at the margins, especially in low-information contests," says Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, who grew up in Winnetka and now is the Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. In a study published in 2013, Zechmeister and fellow Vanderbilt professor Cindy Kam showed the importance of yard signs in races where the candidates are not well-known or affiliated with political parties.

"The vast majority of decisions confronting voters feature names of candidates who may be virtually unknown to them," the researchers noted. As part of their study, they created a fictitious candidate named Ben Griffin and put up campaign signs at each end of a long lawn on a route people used to take their kids to school. The signs featured only the name Ben Griffin and a couple of blue border bars.

Three days later, they asked voters to choose their top three choices among the five incumbents, the fictitious Griffin and another fictitious candidate without yard signs. Nearly a quarter of the respondents who had driven by the signs for the fictitious Ben Griffin placed him among their top three choices (and ahead of the other fictitious non-sign candidate), while only 14 percent of respondents who did not see the signs supported Griffin. People like to vote for winners, and names that seem familiar must be winners, the study suggests.

In small, local races where candidates all share similar platforms, name-recognition could push someone over the top. "Oftentimes, elections are won in the margins," Zechmeister says.

But as soon as those races are decided, those signs now can be recycled.

"We want them (the collection containers) to be so full that we have to call for another container," Gorman says. "We want to provide a chance for even those fictitious candidates to rest in peace."

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