Political sign bans are more insidious than they appear

two yards separated by a white picket fence each with their own political sign endorsing different candidates for mayor
(Erica Garay | Daily Trojan)

Now that we are in the throes of the midterm election, I urge you to look around. Political signage is everywhere, and that makes the friction surrounding us unavoidable. When bright white fonts blare at you from every direction, you are forced to pay attention.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that partisan hostility is on the rise; not only do opposing parties not believe in the other party’s platform, but they’re more likely now than ever to characterize members of the opposing party as “closed-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, and lazy.” Political polarization is on the rise — and that isn’t a good thing for any party, or frankly, any citizen. 

One solution to this partisan division is to prevent political discourse almost completely. In my neighborhood back home, the homeowner’s association has a political yard sign ban. In some ways, such a policy is helpful and comfortable. A neighborhood should be a safe place, free from the hostility politics can bring. Even if politics seem like something that can be put aside, judging and holding biases are part of what makes us human, unleashing a Pandora’s box of unsaid tension and strain. When politics and partisanship permeate so much of modern media and everyday interactions, it feels necessary to have some respite. 

Political signage can be polarizing, if not dangerous. Yard signs can be the targets of vandalism and theft. Just last week in Pennsylvania, a homeowner attempted to remove an unauthorized campaign sign from their lawn, and found it lined with razor blades.  During the divisive 2020 presidential election, two neighboring houses in my hometown on a particularly busy street dotted their entire lawns with huge opposing blue and red signposts. After a few weeks, one house added a “Honk for law and order – vote Republican” sign. The blaring honks heard every day while driving on that street were an apt metaphor for the political polarization poisoning neighborhoods, with a singular sign affecting all the people in the community. 

I like not having to worry about people honking their horns all day and night as they drive past my house. I like being able to chat with my neighbors without resenting them for their beliefs in the back of my mind. I like to feel safe and have peace of mind, not worrying about being shunned or even hurt for my personal views. 

Nobody exists above the plane of politics. I think it’s naive and ignorant to think that a world without politics can even exist. How can a neighborhood be a “politics-free zone” when elected officials and the laws they make affect that very neighborhood? Furthermore, political sign bans fail to serve their basic function of eliminating politics from the neighborhood sphere, because the bans themselves are inherently political acts. To make a community “apolitical” is to take a very specific stance; it means that the status quo is accepted, that complacency and, by extension, complicity, are not only adopted, but also accepted. An apolitical world is simply an endorsement of the existing state of affairs. Neutrality is a vote for those already in power. Under the guise of discouraging outward political expression for the sake of harmony, political sign bans actually push a clear agenda in a world where the apolitical is intrinsically political. 

What’s more is that such bans attempt to mask the political significance and voting power of political signs. Political signage, at its core, calls for action. Yard signs urge civic participation and raise name recognition for candidates. They contribute and aggregate to create a better-informed community. They can even have direct effects on election results. Political scientist Donald Green of Columbia University estimates that political signs can have “somewhere between 1 and 2 percentage points on average” of an effect on election results. With elections as divisive as late, those numbers aren’t something to scoff at. 

In states like California, where state law prohibits political sign bans, there is no such thing as a political vacuum. Campaign slogans line bus stops and neighborhood walks, no matter where you look. You don’t get to hide from the realities of politics. So let political signage bans be a symbol of both the complacency and ignorance plaguing our communities. Political hostility and polarization can be ugly and politics uncomfortable. But, it is in the uncomfortable that we can ask ourselves what we truly value, what we believe in and what we’re willing to sacrifice for it. It is in the uncomfortable that we can reckon with what we disagree with and what seems wrong. It is through discourse and discussion, not in silence and apathy, that we can try and find solutions.