As the local election season rolls around each year, Orange County candidates are setting up signs to promote their campaigns. These campaign signs, which go up 30 days before early voting begins, can be seen strewn across busy intersections, grassy medians and residents’ front yards. Every year; however, the signs are often damaged or disappear as polling day approaches.
While removing a candidate sign looks innocent enough, these actions can have legal consequences.
Geoff Green, a Chapel Hill resident, said candidate signs he had placed along the median in front of his house and his own front yard had mysteriously disappeared in recent weeks.
“I don’t know who is doing this or why they are doing it, but it looks like people are taking signs,” Green said. “And they’re taking everyone’s signs as far as I know.”
While Green has said he doesn’t think the theft of his signs is particularly unusual, he does think it’s something that impacts every candidate.
“I’ve heard from a number of candidates, who aren’t necessarily aligned with the issues, that their signs are going away,” Green said. “So from my point of view, it’s not a particular point of view or a particular candidate that is targeted. It’s everyone. And it puzzles me why people do that.
Other residents believe there has been a slight increase in the number of stolen panels this year compared to previous years.
Chapel Hill resident Will Raymond has helped put up election signs for the past 20 years. He said he believed the signs of three candidates had been more specifically targeted than others this election season.
“I would just say that this year – how methodical, clean and focused it has been – it’s a real shame on our community,” Raymond said. “It does not reflect the values of our community and for the love of God it is only for 30 days. It’s our democracy, it’s our First Amendment, and it’s just too bad that there are people in our community who just think it’s good that they can do that.
Under North Carolina law, stealing, degrading, vandalizing, or illegally removing political posters is a Class 3 offense. Identified cases, however, rarely end up in local criminal courts.
“Frankly, it doesn’t happen that much,” said Jeff Nieman, assistant district attorney for Orange County and Chatham. “I remember twice in the past five years that it was this Class 3 misdemeanor specifically relating to the theft, damage or destruction of signs.”
Nieman said stealing or damaging candidate signs can result in residents with more than just a Class 3 misdemeanor charge and a fine.
“If you went onto someone’s private property and stole or defaced a sign, you could be charged with second degree trespassing or first degree trespassing,” Nieman said. “And for that, you could get up to 60 days in jail if you had an important previous case.”
Additionally, since candidates’ posters can be viewed as property, those who degrade such property can be charged with “personal property damage” – a Class 2 misdemeanor that could result in 60 days in jail. It could also be considered a Class 1 misdemeanor if the value of the destroyed sign was worth more than $ 200. This could result in up to 120 days in prison.
“Then there’s one more I think of,” Nieman said. “If you went onto someone’s private property and stole the sign, you could potentially be charged with misdemeanor theft. It’s a class 1 offense, a maximum possible penalty of 120 days.
Of all the years he lived in Chapel Hill, Nieman said he couldn’t recall a single election cycle where downgraded or removed signs hadn’t been a problem. With the rise of social media and the age of technology, however, he believes there is a better chance for citizens to help law enforcement identify perpetrators. Nieman said that could mean using Ring Doorbells with cameras to keep a watchful eye on the property or just being a good member of the community.
“It’s not a good thing to do, and frankly, it doesn’t help your candidate by doing it,” Nieman said. “In my experience, there is usually a negative backlash. It usually looks bad for the opposing candidate (s). It’s counterproductive and so, I would just say that generally speaking, whether or not you end up being charged with a crime, it’s still not fair. Please don’t.
With early voting set to begin Oct. 14, Raymond said he hoped for more action, not only from vigilant Orange County residents, but from the candidates themselves.
“I would like all the campaigns to stand up and make an unambiguous appeal right now to play with the signs,” Raymond said. “They will only be up for 15, 16 more days. If you can’t stand watching a Vimala [Rajendran] sign or adam [Searing] sign, or a Hongbin [Gu] sign, just look the other way for a little while and they’ll be gone soon enough.
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