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Yard Signs Give Grassroots Voice to Polarized Electorate

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2016 file photo, early voters stand by campaign signs at a voting location in Dallas. Campaign signs have been a thing since the early 1800s.
FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2016 file photo, early voters stand by campaign signs at a voting location in Dallas. Campaign signs have been a thing since the early 1800s.

"Sign, sign, everywhere a sign — blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind."

Apologies to the Five Man Electrical Band and its 1971 hit song, but campaign Sard signs are sprouting like weeds in this particularly polarizing election cycle. With them have come vandals carving Trump signs into "Rump" signs, and vigilantes defying local ordinances to festoon their properties with dozens of partisan placards.

How is it that these analog expressions of political preference survive in our digitally driven, social media-dominated age? Do they even work?

Signs of the times

Political scientists and historians differ on when Americans began using yard signs, but it's been nearly two centuries. John Quincy Adams had signs printed for his campaign for the presidency in 1824.

Experts say the current wire-frame versions began appearing in the 1960s as suburbs — and lawns — sprouted. Their usefulness is questionable, but Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, says his latest research, published this past March, suggests signs could provide a 1 to 2 percentage point boost to a candidate in a very tight contest — though he doubts they'd be a deciding factor in the race for the White House.

"They're not enormously effective, but they're not ineffective, either," Green said. "They could kick you over the line in a very tight race."

Homespun messages

Presidential campaigns typically give away signs or sell them online as a fundraising tool. But in this extra-raucous election year, voters have been making their own to send unique messages.

A hand-painted sign fashioned from sheet metal in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts reads: "Benghazi Hillary for Prison Now." One that's been widely circulated on Facebook features a Trump sign doctored to make it read "RUM: Make America Great Again," complete with a photo of Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow.

Another popular alternative: Signs imploring the universe to send a giant meteor and "just end it already."

Anand Sokhey, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder, says it's all part of America's quadrennial political theater. "People need to find creative ways to express themselves," he said. "We've asked people their motives in displaying these things. They tend to be more ideologically extreme, more activist."

Sign and punishment

Nationwide, campaign signs have been defaced or simply have vanished, leaving the candidates' supporters seething.

Local party leaders in western Michigan's Ottawa County and in central Ohio's Licking County say hundreds of Trump and Clinton signs have been vandalized or stolen.

A Massachusetts man rigged a fake booby trap around a Trump yard sign after two other signs went missing; in battleground Pennsylvania, a woman duct-taped alarms and trip wires to her two Clinton signs. Also in Pennsylvania, a man says he's had 13 Trump signs stolen, one by a man wearing goggles and a hazmat suit, and in the Boston suburb of Easton, a trick-or-treater dressed in a green Gumby costume tore down a "Make America Great Again" sign.

There's been no shortage of down-ticket misdeeds, either. In Rhode Island, former Democratic state Rep. Brian Coogan is accused of stealing a local rival's signs and faces larceny and conspiracy charges.

Although there's no national clearinghouse for violations, many states impose civil penalties with fines of up to $1,000 for removing, defacing or destroying political advertising.

Residents in an upscale Pittsburgh neighborhood have been receiving unsigned postcards asking them to remove campaign signs from their yards. One indignant homeowner had the card enlarged and planted it on his lawn next to signs supporting Clinton and other Democrats.