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Grant Bosse: Why do we put up with political litter?

September 10. 2018 8:39PM

THE ONLY THING more abundant on the sides of New Hampshire roads than dead squirrels are political signs.

The plastic nuisances have been sprouting in the rights-of-way and clustering in intersections for several months, but are in full bloom today as voters head to the polls for the primary.

Most of the signs alongside the road are also illegal, but as Friedrich Hayek teaches us, there is a big difference between legislation and the law.

RSA 664:17 prohibits the placement of political advertising, including in a highway right-of-way, without the owner’s consent. But the New Hampshire Department of Transportation has neither the time nor the inclination to investigate whether the owner of an undeveloped patch of land on Route 4 gave permission for 12 different campaigns to put up their campaign signs.

So we tolerate campaign signs in the right-of-way. They are removed if they are considered a traffic hazard or if a road crew is mowing the grass. Campaigns are also required to pick up their signs within 10 days after the election, a practice that is not always followed.

If local or state officials remove improperly-placed signs, they are supposed to hold on to them for at least a week, giving campaigns a chance to pick up and reuse them. I’ve known savvy campaign operatives to raid DOT sheds in order to harvest wire frames for the next cycle.

The small polybag plastic signs are the dominant invasive species along New Hampshire roads. They are cheap, durable, and very easy to plunge into the ground. A two-person team can plaster a busy road with hundreds of signs in just a few hours.

Back in the Neolithic Era, when I was working the field, we didn’t have such modern conveniences. A campaign worker’s field kit included a heavy mallet and a staple gun. You’d pound a wooden stake into the ground, fold a cardboard sign in half, and staple it to the stake.

This was dreary and time-consuming work, and the signs didn’t last long. The wire-and-polybag setup reduces the cost, in both time and money, of campaign signs, and their use more than doubled from 1984 to 2008. Now, we get a rainbow of competing plastic bags cluttering up our roads.

The Legislaure could prohibit placement of signs in the right-of-way entirely. But remember that the people who would pass such a law are the same people who have to get elected. Some state representatives don’t do any campaigning beyond a few hundred cheap plastic signs to remind their neighbors that they are on the ballot.

Besides, state and local officials have better things to do than sweep up rogue campaign signs every few days. So we tolerate what is essentially political litter.

Is it even worth it? Signs don’t vote, but they signal that a campaign has grassroots support (yards) or at least a hard-working staff (roads.) I once got called into a Sunday evening conference call where the candidate went over sign locations with the entire staff.

Studies have shown signs can increase a candidate’s vote share anywhere from zero to 1.7 percent. That can make the difference in a close race. A campaign without any signs will have its most hard-core supporters on the phone daily complaining about losing the sign war.

But even polybag signs are a drain on limited time and money. Staffers and volunteers could be better used making phone calls and knocking on doors. Direct voter contact will only grow in importance in a fragmented media market where TV advertising is losing its edge.

Having spent countless hours contributing to this roadside clutter, I would love to have the whole thing go away. Campaigns would benefit by agreeing to keep their signs on private property, and bragging to voters about not polluting their commutes.

The temptation to break the truce might be too great as election day approached. Maybe I’m just annoyed that the people who write our laws run for office by breaking them.

Grant Bosse is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @grantbosse.

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