Many voters express their support for a political candidate by placing yard signs in their yard. In addition, many campaigns and supporters want to place signs along road ways to increase their candidate’s name recognition among voters, but it’s important to follow election sign rules or signs can become more of a liability than a benefit to your campaign.
Election Sign Rules
States and local governments restrict when and where campaigns can place yard signs for aesthetic reasons, to limit distractions to drivers, and in the case of disclaimer requirements and campaigning regulations at polling places, to create an even playing field for candidates and promote open and honest political campaigns.
Different states have varying approaches to these state interests. Some governments have very restrictive regulations while others defer to another state interest, preserving the right to political speech, and have few limits on campaign signs.
It’s important for political campaigns to learn what to expect with sign laws and regulations, where to find out what yard sign restrictions are in the district, and how to work within the legal framework to increase the candidate’s name ID and demonstrate social proof.
State Yard Sign Laws and Regulations
The Department of Transportation and the Department of State are ordinarily the instrumentalities of state government that have jurisdiction over election sign rules.
The Department of Transportation’s goal in adopting standards for campaigns is to provide a safe driving experience. With that said, different states have adopted an array of laws regulating campaign signs from mild restrictions to completely restricting yard signs on the state’s right-of-way and severe fines for violations.
Each state’s Department of State usually contains an election bureau. While the election bureau doesn’t ordinarily offer guidance for campaign signs specifically, there are some common regulations that impact sign design and placement on election day.
Political Sign Disclaimer Requirements
Most states have a disclaimer requirement for political advertisements. This usually takes the form of the ubiquitous “paid for by so and so for such and such an office.” The state’s election bureau is responsible for any disclaimer requirement.
Some of the states that have a disclaimer requirement for state and local elections exempt some promotional material because they are so small that it is impractical to print a disclaimer. Campaign emory boards and balloons are examples of some items that are sometimes exempted from a disclaimer requirement. Yard signs, however, are usually not exempt and must comply with the state’s disclaimer requirement.
State Right of Way Restrictions
The Department of Transportation in most states has put restrictions on political signs. Some states treat campaign yard signs like any other outdoor signage such as real estate signs and signs for fairs and church bazaars while others treat political signs differently.
Regardless, in order to maintain safe roads, the Department of Transportation in your state will have election sign rules on:
- Whether or not signs are allowed on the state’s right-of-way at all
- How far from the side of the road campaigns signs are allowed
- Restrictions on putting lawn signs on the highway median
- Prohibiting signs at intersections outright or from impeding a driver’s vision
- Whether people are allowed to stop alongside the road. While this doesn’t relate specifically to signs, if you aren’t allowed to stop on certain types of states roads you wouldn’t, then, be able to place a sign along that road.
- If the campaign and/or the candidate must pay a fine for violating campaign yard sign laws
- How long the Department will keep signs they have collected until disposing of them
Of these, guidelines of when to place signs along the right-of-way and outright bans are the most common. Fines for violating the ordinance are less common but each states differs.
Lawn Signs at Polling Places
While there are generally not rules specific to yard signs at polling places there are oftentimes general restrictions on campaigning at polling places on election day.
Like restrictions along the right-of-way, the law relating to campaigning at polling places vary widely. Some states provide no guidance at all but leave it up to the presiding officer of the polling place, like Vermont, while a number of states prevent campaigning within a certain number of feet from where you vote.
If the distance is significant such as one hundred feet, what do you do? First, for many polling places, placing signs one hundred feet from the building isn’t a burden. In the case of many churches, schools, and other common polling place locations putting a sign at the entrance to the site will fall within state regulations and are a great location for signs since every voter driving into the location will see them.
If you’re not so lucky, try to put the signs where most voters will see them along a road or intersection leading up to the polling place. Political campaigns should be thinking about visibility and demonstrating popular support for the candidate through signs and other means around polling places.
Finally, if the distance restriction is smack in the middle of a parking lot and the closest spot to place a sign is some distance away consider taking the campaign sign off of the wire and giving it to a volunteer to hold. A few volunteers holding signs on election day is a great way to increase candidate visibility and is a tactic used by many campaigns.
Local Yard Sign Laws and Regulations
Many municipal governments have more election sign rules above and beyond state laws. When local governments have sign ordinances they usually restrict: the size of the yard signs, the shape of campaign lawn signs, the time frame that private property owners can display signs on their lawn, and restrictions or a complete prohibition to placing signs on the local right-of-way.
Campaign Sign Shapes and Sizes
Although less common, local governments will limit the size of political yard signs. If this restriction limits the size of the sign on the municipal right-of-way, campaigns may consider ordering two different sizes of signs. Particularly if the candidate has a long surname, this size restriction might make it very hard for voters to read the name and office sought at higher speeds.
One way to figure out if your campaign should order two or more sizes of yard signs is to make a homemade sign within the municipalities size restriction and drive by it at different speeds. Can a voter read the sign at 30 mph? 40 mph? 50 mph? If the sign is only readable at very slow speeds perhaps it’s a good idea to get a larger sign for other municipalities, private lawns if the local government doesn’t include them in the ordinance, and state right-of-ways.
Local Right of Way Restrictions
Limits on political campaign’s access to the local right-of-way are similar to state restrictions in that they either:
- Prohibit campaigns from using the right-of-way
- Only allow campaign yard signs a certain distance from from the edge of the roadway
- Put a restriction on signs’ visibility from the road
- No restrictions
Ordinances limiting access to the municipal right-of-way are the easiest local restriction to enforce and for your political opponents to notice. With this in mind, your desire to follow the law aside, it’s not smart for campaigns to violate right-of-way ordinances.
Political Signs on Private Property
There are very few restrictions on placing yard signs on private property. With that said, there are a few states that limit signs on private property that are visible from state road ways. Some local governments and homeowners associations will limit the time that a political sign can be on a lawn or ban them outright.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the ordinance in City of Ladue v. Gilleo explaining:
- Displaying a yard sign on a lawn “carries a message” that’s different from any other location
- Signs on private property are a “cheap and convenient form of (political) communication”
- For people of limited means or mobility, there is no substitute for lawn signs
The Supreme Court also found that even for people of means, the difference in cost to take out a newspaper advertisement or other form of political expression could mean the difference betwee participating in public debate.
Lower courts have cited the Gilleo precedent with great success in challenging city bans on political yard signs.
With that said, if a locality in your district is one of the few that prohibit campaign yard signs on private property adhere to the law. After the campaign is over and you have more time, consider taking action to try to change this local ordinance that has been struck down in other towns for violating first amendment rights.
While some states, like Texas, have expressly prohibited homeowners associations from limiting private property owner’s ability to display yard signs on their lawn, many homeowners associations have blanket restrictions on outdoor signage including political yard signs.
As a private entity, homeowners associations cannot violate your first amendment rights like a governmental entity can. That means that aside from a state law preventing homeowners associations from making restrictions on placing yard signs on private property, HOAs limit a private property owner’s ability to show support for their chosen candidate with a political sign.
When an HOA imposes restrictions on yard signs they usually are outright bans but can also place time limitations before and after an election.
Sign Law and Campaign Tactics
Aside from the possibility of paying fines and penalties for violating lawn sign regulations depending upon the state, following the letter of the law will prevent attacks from your opponent. Political foes are always looking for you and your political campaign to make a mistake.
Don’t make the mistake of violating state and local lawn sign regulations. Your opponent will take your campaign to task for yard sign theft and other violations whether the campaign was responsible or not.
When you understand campaign sign laws, your campaign can prevent these attacks and understand when the other candidate is running roughshod over the law. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so when the other candidate violates campaign sign law, ask the voters if they can trust someone to make laws who can’t follow some of the simplest regulations in the state or locality.
Best yet, this works. In 2010, one of the most effective campaign TV ads featured yard sign theft. Dale Peterson’s TV spot for agriculture commissioner resulted in a full 25% bump in the polls. With the right approach, using yard signs in social media, earned media, direct mail, and even radio or TV will work.
Yard sign laws vary dramatically. The source of these laws and regulations, however, are common. For the most part, your state’s Department of State will regulate any political disclaimer requirement and regulations surrounding campaigning at polling places.
The Department of Transportation oversees regulations centering on the state’s right-of-way.
Some of the localities in the district along with homeowners associations may restrict sign placement and sign design even further, so be sure to understand the local requirements as well.
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. I’ve put together the best information here that I was able to find. With this said, don’t misconstrue this post as legal advice.