Get off our lawn: How a local truce could mean the end of election signs in one Ontario community

Candidates in Kingston’s Portsmouth district won’t use lawn signs during the 2018 municipal-election campaign. Will politicians elsewhere follow their lead?
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on September 13, 2018
Stacks of campaign signs in a bulldozer scooper
Four-term Williamsville councillor and incumbent Jim Neill tried to enact a no-lawn-signs truce in his district, but he couldn’t get consensus.

KINGSTON — Election signs will start sprouting up in most parts of Kingston later this month, but they won’t be appearing on lawns in the municipal district of Portsmouth — because local candidates have agreed not to use them.

Abstaining from lawn signs is becoming a tradition in Portsmouth, one of Kingston’s 12 electoral districts. This marks the third straight municipal campaign in which candidates for council have agreed to a no-sign truce. School-trustee candidates in Portsmouth will also forgo signage (there were no signs last election either, but only because the trustee was acclaimed). Mayoral candidates still have time to decide whether they’ll go with signs — Mayor Bryan Paterson, though, has already indicated that his re-election campaign will be using them.

It’s rare for candidates to agree to swear off signs, but it has happened before. In the 2014 municipal election in Whistler, British Columbia, all 11 candidates running for mayor and council agreed to go without them. In 2016, both candidates running for mayor of Halifax decided not to use them, citing environmental reasons.

One of the Portsmouth candidates, Bridget Doherty, argued that conversing with voters is more important than using signs. While campaigning on a recent Thursday evening, Doherty encountered high-school teacher James Mastorakos, who was out walking his dog. He favours scrapping lawn signs, too — in part because they’re an eyesore.

“I’m totally for it,” said Mastorakos, who works in Belleville. Although municipal-election lawn signs can’t legally go up in Kingston until September 22, they’ve been popping up in Belleville since July 28.  

“I drive by probably 20 signs within 100 metres on my way home,” Mastorakos said. “There’s an overabundance.”

Lawn signs can also present a tempting target for vandals. During the provincial election earlier this year, candidates’ signs were defaced in Kingston, as well as in London, Ottawa, Bancroft, and elsewhere.                                               

Candidates in Portsmouth have cited the high cost of lawn signs and the fact that they reveal little about a candidate besides their name as reasons why they are taking part in the no-sign agreement. All shared a concern for the environmental impact of lawn signs. But while there may have been a time when signs ended up as landfill, the most common version available today — made of corrugated plastic — is recyclable, at least in Kingston. A representative for the city says the signs are ground up and sold to various industries that use recycled plastics.

Doherty ran for the Green Party in the 2007 provincial election, and she didn’t use signs during that campaign, either. Her decision then not to use lawn signs was more about cost than ecology: it simply wasn’t worth it for the campaign to spend money on signs that likely would not have given her the edge she needed to win.

And every sign that goes up has to be hammered home by someone— usually a campaign volunteer, whose time might be better spent elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether other places in Ontario will follow the district’s lead. Several municipalities, including Kingston, London, and Guelph, have made changes to their election-sign bylaws in the past year. But these amendments have typically dealt with where signs can go up — some cities now ban them from public property, for example — and for how long.                                           

In Kingston’s Williamsville district, adjacent to Portsmouth, four-term councillor and incumbent Jim Neill tried to enact a no-lawn-signs truce, but he couldn’t get consensus. (He did, however, make the front page of the Kingston Whig-Standard when he crammed about 400 of his old campaign signs into his Toyota Prius and took them to the Kingston Area Recycling Centre.)

Challenger Vincent Cinanni has said that he’ll be using signs during the campaign. He hopes they’ll help establish name recognition — an important consideration for any candidate, especially in municipal politics, where the advantage of incumbency is especially strong. “[Neill] has the name recognition. He's been on council for 14 years,” Cinanni told CBC News. “He's been in all the media.”

Ted Hsu, former MP for Kingston and the Islands, agreed that ditching lawn signs would tend to favour an incumbent, because doing so denies challengers an opportunity to get their name in front of voters’ eyes. “I think if you’re the incumbent, you probably shouldn’t be the one proposing [a no-lawn-sign truce],” he said. “Name recognition in municipal elections matters a lot.”

Hsu also believes that in a world of fake news and Twitter bots, election signs are important because they function as visible, real-world indicators of political support — as an “endorsement that you give by being willing to put a lawn sign in front of your house, on your own property, in plain view.”

But do signs accurately signal voter interest? Researchers in Alberta found that studying them can help predict election results. A 2014 study counted signs on private property in three Calgary ridings during a byelection. In two of those ridings, the sign count accurately predicted the candidates’ vote shares. In the third riding, the prediction was wrong. But two out of three “ain’t bad,” pollster Janet Brown said at the time,

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt, who also worked on the study, said he understands why candidates in Kingston are trying to make lawn signs obsolete, but he argues that a total, official ban would be too restrictive. “Do we ban TV ads? Radio ads? Should we ban people campaigning door-to-door?” Bratt said. “I see [election signs] as having value to the candidate and having value to society. But then again, I’m a political scientist.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

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