With less than two weeks to go until Election Day and more than 100 local candidates for office, you can’t escape campaign signs. And if past practice is any guide, they will likely be with us for months, even if their candidates aren’t.
“I’m seeing less illegal sign removal to the point where candidates are putting signs up on interstates, highways, or just wherever they can seem to find a spot to put up a sign, and I rarely if ever see the sign removed,” said Jason Powell, state representative in House District 53.
When candidates pull a petition to run for office, they receive a handout from the Davidson Election Commission clearly defining the rules for sign placement. According to Metro code, it is illegal to place a sign on a pole, street, sidewalk, right-of-way, throughfare, or any other public property under the Metro Government without its permission.
“Our rule of thumb is if it is causing an issue with sight distance, we remove them,” said Cortnye Stone, Director of Communications for Nashville Department of Transportation (NDOT).
But despite the clearly defined rules, illegal sign placement is on the rise. As a result, the election commission is receiving an increased number of community complaints. Jeff Roberts, Davidson County Administrator of Elections, said they may “need to consider” follow-up communication with the candidates because of this increase in “community input.”
So while candidate signs may provide name identification, they might have the opposite effect, leaving community members frustrated.
“They junk up a community, and they can block views… just throwing things out onto the street corners is pretty disrespectful of communities,” said Dave Rosenberg, the council member for District 35 in Bellevue. According to Powell and Rosenberg’s experience as candidates, it can be hard to place signs legally because it requires a process of permission and support from residents.
“[Illegal sign placement] is a disservice to every candidate that goes out there and works to get legally placed signs to then turn around and have their competition placing illegal signs,” said Powell. “It really undermines the entire process.”
And for whatever a sign’s utility is before Election Day, after it, they’re trash.
“They end up in our streams and creeks. I’ve seen signs along greenways and other places where they’re just never removed,” said Powell. “If no one’s gonna go back and pick up the signs, then they become a safety hazard or an environmental issue.”
And candidate sign clean-up is just as scattered as candidate sign placement.
Roberts says the election commission “has no regulatory authority over signs.” If they’re in someone’s yard, it’s up to the homeowner to dispose of them. If they’re on a utility pole, it’s up to Nashville Electric Service (NES). If they’re left on a right of way, NDOT takes care of them. If they’re left in a public park, Metro Parks removes them. The signage clean-up correlates to whoever oversees that section of public property.
In addition, Powell says “there’s really no mechanism in place to fine those campaigns or those candidates” who illegally place signs or do not clean them up after the election.
Clean-up is costly, either requiring taxpayers to use resources to remove the signs on their own or requiring the city to investigate and figure out whether a sign is truly on public property then use city resources to have it removed.
Sometimes, Powell says, candidates argue that they have free speech to place these signs on public property, which he says “is not true.” So it’s hard to efficiently and effectively clean up campaign sign litter. The matter is complicated by the fact that candidates themselves often do not place signs.
Powell proposed HB 603 in the last legislative session to address this issue. It would have authorized election commissions to give fines if illegally placed signs are not removed after the election. The bill failed in the Election and Campaign Finance subcommittee.
“We’ve got to put some teeth into the law to make sure these campaigns face some sort of a consequence and to me having a fine in place is the best mechanism for doing that,” said Powell. “So I’m gonna continue to work to amend the bill with different members of that committee to figure out what the best possible alternative piece of legislation would be.”
In the meantime, section 6.04.035B of the Metro Code says anyone can remove illegally placed signs, and Rosenberg says when large, expensive illegally placed signs are picked up, candidates are less likely to put them back.
For safety, NDOT prefers that residents report these signs, and a work crew will pick them up.
“Now with hub Nashville, it makes it a lot easier for residents to report issues as they see them. And so we would ask that residents submit the issue to hub Nashville by calling 311 or visiting hub.nashville.gov,” said Stone.