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Election signs: Clutter in action or democracy at work?

Are election signs unnecessary roadside clutter that distracts drivers? Or a useful democratic tool for engaging with voters?

That will be up for debate on Jan. 30, when Oakville council considers a motion to ban election signs from public property.

Councillors Sean O’Meara and Nav Nanda want council to create a new by-law allowing signs to be displayed only on private property, with the consent of the property owner.

Current rules allow election signs along town-owned arterial roads up to 45 days prior to an election, subject to various restrictions around the distance from curbs, driveways and intersections. Those rules are embedded in a by-law dealing with all types of signage across the town.

But O’Meara, who made a similar but unsuccessful push to eliminate signs on public property after the 2014 election, says the current regulations aren’t working.

“People just aren’t obeying the rules, and we lack the ability to enforce them,” he said. “We don’t have the staff to be everywhere.”

He says signs posted on the Bronte cenotaph frustrated him most during October’s municipal election.

Town staff say they received 70 complaints about sign violations during the municipal election. Those complaints led them to remove 258 signs. They also proactively removed another 114 signs that didn’t comply with the by-law.

Nanda, who recently captured the Ward 7 town and regional council seat, says she heard public complaints about the volume of election signs. In October's election, 11 candidates ran for council positions in her North Oakville ward.

“It just caused a lot of sign pollution,” said Nanda. “People just felt it was too much.”

The motion by Nanda and O’Meara argues that election signs are “visual clutter on our roadways often distracting drivers and causing blight,” as well as “overwhelmingly made with plastics having a negative impact on our environment.”

Levelling the playing field

But others in the political arena say election signs play an important role in facilitating democracy.

"These signs are a way for challengers to get their names out in front of the public in an attempt to gain name recognition when running against an incumbent who already has this advantage," says Michael Reid, a Ward 5 candidate in the last two municipal elections.

He suggests environmental concerns could be addressed by limiting signs to reusable frames or recyclable or biodegradable materials.

Election signs help “level the playing field” between incumbents and challengers, agrees Julia Hanna, who attempted to unseat Oakville's veteran mayor in the 2018 and 2022 elections.

She says she supports limiting signs to a two-week stretch just before the election but not restricting them completely from public property.

Hanna also worries that reducing signage could impact voter engagement. “With signs, we only have a 28 per cent voter turnout. What would it be like without signs?”

Oakville school board trustee Kelly Amos argues that signs offer an effective and reasonably priced way to build name recognition.

Without them, she says, candidates would have to rely more on printed materials. That would make campaigns more expensive and might make it more challenging to attract good candidates.

“Running for school board trustee has to be fully funded privately, not like the rest of the municipal positions, who can fundraise and give tax rebates,” she says. “Also, the school board trustee is the lowest paid position of all the elected positions by a far margin. If I had wanted to, I could have spent more on my election campaign than I would earn in one year as a trustee.

“If the cost to run goes up, there may be a loss of quality candidates who run for the position.”

Signs “spark” engagement, says Ward 3 councillor

The proposed motion will face at least one determined opponent at the council table on Jan. 30.

"This is really about fair, visible elections," says Ward 3 councillor Janet Haslett-Theall.

She believes signs are crucial tools that "spark and support people's involvement in our democracy" by reminding them of the election and making them aware of the candidates.

She says their role in building challenger name recognition is also essential.

“When you’re a newcomer, that’s half the battle,” says Haslett-Theall. "I think we have to give a hand up to those who wish to be part of this process.”

Concerns about the clutter of the signs could be addressed by tweaking the volume, distance and placement of signs that are allowed, says Haslett-Theall.

“There are ways, if we put our mind to it, to do a better job in supporting our elections. But eliminating those public signs goes too far,” she said.

Signs banned elsewhere

Both Nanda and O’Meara reject the idea that voters will be less engaged if signs are eliminated from public property.

“I believe if you’re out there, you’re able to speak to residents personally, knock on doors and get your information out,” says Nanda.

O’Meara adds that election signs are not permitted on public roads in Burlington, Mississauga, Brampton, or regional roads in Halton, including those in Oakville.

“I just don’t believe we’re more democratic than our neighbouring municipalities because we allow this visual pollution all over the municipality,” he said.

He added that Burlington’s 27.6 per cent voter turnout in the last election is similar to Oakville’s.

Signage laws have run into freedom of speech issues through the years.

Last November, Brampton city council passed a resolution directing staff to create a by-law that would ban all outdoor election signs, including lawn signs on private property.

That led the Canadian Constitution Foundation to announce its intent to challenge the constitutionality of the by-law.

“The Brampton sign by-law is undemocratic and unconstitutional. It prohibits outdoor signs on private property and goes against a long line of cases from the Supreme Court protecting free expression and political speech,” said a press release from the organization.

“It entrenches incumbent advantage by protecting candidates with name recognition and prohibiting their opponents from meaningfully advertising. The by-law is transparently self-serving and will be struck down.”

Following a closed session on Dec. 14, Brampton council backpedalled on the idea, directing city staff to consult with the public on election signs and report back.