Politics (and its yard signs) is the damnedest

Political signage from 2010. Author’s collection.

A couple weeks ago, I drove through a few different central Kentucky counties. As is the case throughout the Commonwealth, each is in the midst of election season. Political signage dotted the rolling hillsides.

But the hillsides and intersections weren’t overrun like they are here in fair Jessamine County.

Without a doubt, political signs could be found in the counties I visited. I saw numerous signs for both local offices and state representative.

Yet, I wasn’t inundated. I could drive more than thirty second without encountering a political sign of any sort.

It seems as if I cannot travel thirty feet in Jessamine County without spotting a yard sign for some candidate or another.

So why are yard signs such a part of Jessamine County’s political culture?

I’ve only lived in Jessamine County for about a decade, so admittedly I’m not sure how long our streetscapes have been inundated by political signage. But since the 1980s, the number of political yard signs nationally has quadrupled. And during the same time, Jessamine County’s population has exploded.

With more and more new voters in the county, yard signs become an effective way of raising name identification for the candidates running for elected office. Studies have shown that this is true, particularly in competitive races that are described as “low-information.”

(Yard signs have been shown to have little or no effect in larger races, like those for President or Congress.)

A low-information race is one in which candidates don’t express, or aren’t forced to express, opinions on the issues. Or perhaps the issues aren’t well-defined. (Yet sometimes it feels that describes races for Congress or even President.)

As I’ve written in recent weeks, our local government races are the most likely to be low-information.

In the race for Nicholasville city commission, some of the political newcomers bring new ideas and tremendous experience which would bring value to the deliberations made at city hall. There are important issues like improving the resources of our fire department, strengthening our police department in the face of increased drug activity, and developing the ever-growing Nicholasville in a smart manner that is consistent with the master plan.

And those are just a few examples for one office. There are a myriad of issues that each elected official will face. More so than far-off Washington, DC or even Frankfort, those elected to serve locally have the greatest power to affect our daily lives.

So why do we allow these campaigns – which will ultimately control our police and fire protection levels, our neighborhood roads, and the utilities upon which we depend – to be low information?

How our city and county grow should not be determined by which candidate can put out the most 4’x8’ signs or the most yard signs in an attempt to increase their name recognition with voters.

Voters need to study the candidates, their qualifications and experience, and understand how those qualities best fit the office being sought. In a low information campaign, this information can be difficult to obtain. Online research is one way to start. Just “Google” the candidate’s name with the office sought and see what you can learn. Ask the candidates questions and, if they aren’t clear, ask a follow up question. Get to know each of the candidates.

But don’t just count yard signs and don’t let their presence be your guide when you enter the voting box.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Jessamine Journal on September 24, 2014It should not be republished without permission.

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