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Signs, signs everywhere a sign: There must be an election underway

Election signs may seem like a throwback, but they’re an important part of building name recognition, says a communications expert.
Election signs are clustered at the corner of Cedar Hill Cross Road and Shelbourne Street in Saanich. With dozens of candidates running for council in some municipalities, voters are prone to "sign fatigue." ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Election signs have sprouted like so many weeds after a rain.

On street corners and boulevards, lawns and along highways, they proliferate in different colours and sizes, some with faces, others with names and slogans as just over 200 candidates in the capital region jockey for name recognition on the ballot heading to the election on Oct. 15.

And then there’s one hopeful candidate apologizing for all this temporary mess.

The signs of James Harasymow, one of 37 candidates running for eight positions on Victoria council, just read SORRY ABOUT THE SIGNS, and you have to walk up close to read his name in the fine print below.

It’s Harasymow’s third run for a seat and he’s never done election signs before. “I thought if you want to win an election, you gotta play dirty … well, think outside the box, anyway,” he said Thursday.

Harasymow, 49, a manager at Frankie’s Diner and father of two who’s campaigning on public safety, affordable housing and added culture, said the strategy seems to be working, After putting up on the the signs this week, he watched two elderly women pointing at his sign, starting a conversation and nodding in agreement.

“It gave them something to talk about, and that’s the idea,” said Harasymow.

Michael Prince, Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria, called Harasymow’s election sign “a very Canadian election campaign,” saying the apologetic nature of the message was something refreshing and catchy as new candidates try to get noticed.

“It injects a bit of humour, and shows a candidate anticipating and taking stock of the overall place and time. I think people have noticed.”

Harasymow isn’t alone. In Saanich, candidate Trevor Barry wants to restrict election signs, making use of the hashtag #SignsAreBad in his campaign.

Sid Tobias, who is running for mayor in View Royal, isn’t using signs at all. The former chief petty officer first class prefers to meet his voters in neighbourhoods and use social media to get his name and message out. A pamphlet on recycled paper with a QR code leads people to his website and platform, and an interactive forum

“I didn’t participate in the semi-disposable plastic-sign campaign because it did not make sense to me that these things end up in land fill,” said Tobias. “I have received more praise than criticism for that.”

Tobias said his website has received more than 3,600 views — twice the amount of people who voted four years ago — and his platform on LinkedIn had 14,000 views — more than the population of View Royal.

Like many members of the public, Tobias said he getting “sign blind at intersections.”

Landscape pollution or essential name recognition, election signs are part of the political game, said Prince.

“Most people don’t vote in municipal elections, so [signs] can be irritating to people, but for candidates it’s important,” he said.

The sheer numbers of candidates in Victoria (eight vying for mayor and 37 for councillors) and Saanich (22 vying for eight council seats), for example, presents a “challenge for them to get a name recognition when it comes time for a voter to go to the ballot box,” said Prince.

“We’ll likely see a burst of more signs as the election nears, to saturate and create a visual sense of momentum. With four or five days to go, a candidate may have a pile of signs in their garage, basement or apartment , and they’ll say ‘we’d better use them.’ ”

David Black, an associate professor in communication and culture at Royal Roads University, said election signs may seem like a throwback to the days when ward-heelers worked their precincts and candidates stood on actual stumps to give speeches.

“Old-fashioned though they are, election signs are important to municipal elections because in a civic race, almost every candidate is their own brand — the exception being those endorsed by elector organizations — and name recognition is essential to a voter understanding whom to vote for,” said Black.

“Using their name, we read their website, consult their campaign literature or listen to what they have to say at a live campaign event. And vitally, their name is what we recognize when, to take Victoria’s councillor race as an example, we navigate a ballot with 37 names on it, and are invited to choose eight when voting.”

Black said municipal councils are the only level of government where candidates truly are citizen-politicians. He said the independent, amateur, grassroots quality of civic elections and government follows from the individual personalities who declare themselves as candidates. “And election signs, out of place as they can seem in an era when even municipal candidates with sufficient resources can advertise on social media platforms, are the purest expression of that individual, independent logic that is the heart and charm of civic politics,” said Black.

For about a month, however, election signs can be annoying. Heavy clusters on some street corners, including an area over the Bay Street bridge, have been carefully taken down and stacked neatly, only to be erected again.

Others have been the target of vandals, who are either ripping them down or using markers to blacken a tooth or turn candidates into pirates or black-eyed hockey players.

Victoria Police spokesman Bowen Osoko said messing with election signs is illegal.

“We have received reports of election signs being stolen, damaged and destroyed,” he said. “We investigate where resources allow and, well, we’re in a very resource-challenged environment that is impacting all areas of the department.”

That didn’t stop Stephen Andrew, who is running for mayor of Victoria, from reporting at least one incident of vandalism to Victoria Police on Sept. 3, saying one of his election signs on Esquimalt Road, north of the Johnson Street Bridge, was wrecked. He said witnesses observed a man kicking and uprooting a sign as another man watched.

“This is not an isolated incident,” said Andrew. “Vandalism and removal of our signs not only cost our campaign several thousand dollars, but also subverts democracy, intimidates voters and attempts to silence our right to free speech.”

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