PHOENIX -- Although this may be one of the most emotional and hotly contested presidential elections in decades, the theft and vandalism of political signs are nothing new. Every election season, candidate signs disappear from intersections, streets, and yards across America. They usually vanish in the dead of night, as mischief makers abscond with them under cover of darkness. More brazen political opponents occasionally conduct their heists in broad daylight.
This election year, though, a new phenomenon is ensuing. Victims of political sign thefts are fighting back with high tech surveillance.
In McCain's home state of Arizona, the Obama signs seem to disappear the most. In one neighborhood, Obama yard signs consistently disappear so soon after being planted in the yards that Melinda Applegate and her sister Ellen Pierce formed a neighborhood group of almost a half dozen homes to purchase yard signs in bulk from the Obama campaign. Applegate and Pierce have gone through nearly $120 in Obama yard signs since the primary nominees were determined. In addition, the neighborhood group tries to provide replacement signs quickly to neighbors whose signs are stolen or defaced.
Applegate, Pierce, and another neighbor who lives about half a block away became so exasperated that they each purchased surveillance cameras, and trained them on the signs in their yards. Saturday afternoon, the surveillance efforts of both neighbors paid off. Both captured video of the same woman stealing Obama signs from each of their yards.
Applegate and Pierce's video captured a car driving by, stopping to show their middle finger to the yard sign, and then driving away. A minute or two later, an SUV drives by, slows beside the sign, turns around, and parks on the side of the street by the sign. As the driver gets out of her SUV, another car drives by. Clearly experienced at this, the sign thief shows no trepidation -- she simply pretends to fix her bra strap and tie her shoes. As the other car disappears, she reaches into the back of the SUV to make room for the sign. When the other car is completely out of sight, she darts across the sidewalk, uproots the yard sign, chucks it into the back of her SUV, and makes an exceedingly quick getaway.
Watch Applegate and Pierce's homemade video:
Moments later, at a neighbor's house half a block away, the same thief drives by, then backs up to park. She scampers across the driveway, snatches the Obama sign and absconds with it:
The same thief stole Obama signs from at least three yards on the same street all within minutes of each other.
Determined to catch this prolific sign thief, Applegate and Pierce compiled a video telling her story and included video of the thief and posted it to YouTube. She began calling local news stations today, and she hopes that they will tell her story and show the video on local television. The disappearances of her yard signs is a very serious matter for Applegate and Pierce. Applegate says the last time she was excited about any candidate was decades ago when Robert F Kennedy was running for office. This is the first time she purchased signs or donated to any campaign, and she considers the theft of her signs an effort to suppress her right to free speech, "Nobody has a right to prevent us from supporting the candidate of our choice."
Applegate and Pierce replaced their sign once again, but this time she put up a "WANTED" poster just above it with photos of the sign thief. She hopes that it will deter future thefts of both her signs and her neighbors' signs. The sign is definitely catching the attention of neighbors who happen by on their daily walks. Many stop and read the sign. Neighbors have vowed to be on the lookout for the sign thief or her vehicle.
Across the country, frustrated victims of sign thefts have been capturing video of their signs, hoping to catch thieves in the act. The Wall Street Journal recently chronicled the story of a 16 year old whose sign thefts inspired hundreds of Obama supporters from around the world to monitor a live streaming of his yard:
Dozens of viewers now take shifts, based on their time zones, so as not to leave the sign unwatched at any time. Viewers in Europe take over for those turning in on the West Coast, who are in turn relieved by a dedicated crew of Australians. It's attracted more than 40,000 viewers and ranks among the top 10 most-watched videos on Ustream.tv, the Web site that hosts the video, among videos of the two presidential candidates and comedian Dane Cook.
Unfortunately, when the live streaming captured thieves in the act in the middle of the night, none of the sentries were able to contact local police because the family had maintained their anonymity at the time -- no one knew who or where to call.
Jeff Seibert of Richmond, Virginia caught his yard sign nemesis red handed via digital video. When the police arrived, they were able to get a confession from the vandal, and they charged him with vandalism. Seibert, who vows to go to court to prosecute the vandal, then placed his homemade video online to deter other sign thieves and to encourage other Obama supporters to "keep on displaying your choice with pride":
Several months ago, a young man in Lancaster, Pennsylvania spent hours creating a homemade Obama banner to put it in the right of way (across the street from his apartment complex) facing a neighboring highway. He is disabled and uses a wheelchair, so one of his neighbors helped him put up the large sign.
He became enraged when a lady in a neighboring apartment ripped it apart only five minutes after he planted it in the ground. Wheelchair bound and alone by then, there was nothing he could do to stop her. Thinking quickly on his feet, though, he called the police before grabbing his video camera and filming her. The yelling that ensued quickly drew other neighbors to the scene as well. After ripping, shredding, and wadding up his banner, she dragged the scraps into her apartment, leaving debris along the street and grass behind her. After being informed that the police were on their way, she hotfooted it to her car, attempting to flee. Luckily police arrived and blocked her car from leaving.
WARNING: The following video contains very strong language!
The results of a Google or YouTube search illustrate that candidate supporters across the country -- for both Obama and McCain (though with a very heavy slant toward Obama supporters as the victims) -- are picking up their video cameras to fight back against vandals and thieves. Other Obama supporters have stuck with more low tech deterrents to protect their signs -- like taking signs inside at night or spreading one part (the sticky-will-never-dry part) of two-party epoxy onto the backs of signs or even rubbing the signs with poison ivy.