Election signs get second chance in the afterlife

Fresh canvases for creative hands? Unwanted election signs are starting to pile up at the Indoor Soccer Center in Gig Harbor, ready to be reused or recycled.
Fresh canvases for creative hands? Unwanted election signs are starting to pile up at the Indoor Soccer Center in Gig Harbor, ready to be reused or recycled. Photo courtesy PenMet Parks

There’s a thin line separating protected political speech from prolific curbside clutter, and that line is demarcated by Election Day every November.

Technically, the law gives candidates until 10 days after Election Day to pluck all their signs from public rights of way. But conscientious campaigners sensitive to neighborhood concerns (and who want to retain public favor to run for office again someday) didn’t waste time collecting their signs after last week’s election, undaunted by rain, wind and dark of night.

God bless the candidates who didn’t overstay their welcome a day longer than necessary. And may there be an extra blessing on all office seekers who keep their campaign signs out of local dumpsters and landfills.

With that in mind, we give our final endorsement of this election season to PenMet Parks. The agency is serving as a clearinghouse between Gig Harbor area election campaigns, artists, teachers and do-it-yourselfers, hoping to spark creative ideas for re-purposing old yard signs.

PenMet plans to break down some signs and recycle pieces into birdhouses for the Scarecrow Festival it hosts each year. It’s also working with local art teachers who often prowl for raw material. Projects could range from holiday arts and crafts to float decorations for next summer’s Maritime Gig parade.

Whatever afterlife these political signs enjoy, keeping them out of the waste stream is an honorable goal. While Pierce County officials say corrugated plastic signs can be recycled at the Tacoma landfill, other pieces — such as the metal ground spikes — can gum up the works.

Word spread among candidates on the Peninsula that they can drop off their signs at the Indoor Soccer Center not far from the Narrows Bridge. As of Monday, nearly a half dozen candidates had brought in a total of roughly 200 signs, said PenMet recreation manager Gretchen Hayes.

Metro Parks Tacoma doesn’t have a program like this. But officials there told us they’re so enamored with the idea, they plan to explore being campaign sign intermediaries in the 2018 election.

This contagious burst of conservation with a creative bent sounds good to us. When one works in the newspaper industry, whose product is often reused for wrapping fish and lining birdcages, one is particularly sympathetic to (and humbled by) the ephemeral nature of free speech.

Campaign signs can be unsightly, annoying and sometimes distracting. For many years, Tacoma officials claimed the right to remove them before Election Day for aesthetic reasons. In 2005, the city finally wised up and complied with a 12-year-old state Supreme Court ruling. The city rewrote its rules to acknowledge that political messaging in the public right of way, no matter how unpopular, is constitutionally protected.

Indeed, witnessing the colorful mishmash of election signs over the last five months was a celebration of American democracy at its messiest.

Watching them disappear over the last several days, aware that some are destined for a new purpose, a second chance? Well, that’s part of the American experience worth celebrating, too.