election signs canada

Election signs in Canada are bad for democracy and the environment

It’s election day, and as voters make their way to the polls, they will undoubtedly pass dozens of campaign signs repping local candidates.

While some argue that these eyesores are a legitimate form of political expression, they might actually be bad for democracy according to one politician.

The first issue with campaign signs is that they’re arguably the most unsophisticated form of political speech.

They’re basically big bumper stickers that tell a viewer nothing more than what political team someone cheers for. These unhelpful hunks of plastic are everywhere, but they add so little to the political conversation.

Christo Aivalis, a historian and expert in Canadian politics at the University of Toronto, says that the lawn sign can help a person understand where people in their communities stand.

“If you see a lot of your neighbors having a sign, it might indicate that the people like me support the party, and at the very least maybe I should be considering them too,” he said.

This may be useful for a strategic voter, for example, but the poster of a sign is not always clear.

“Properties that are owned by landlords might have a sign on them, but the person living there might not be represented by that sign,” Aivalis said.

Sometimes, a sign will end up on the wrong lawn, and it’s a bit embarrassing for all involved.

Aivalis says that misplacing signs can be an honest mistake, but adds that “sometimes it's dirty politics.” 

Campaign signs often litter major intersections, giving a person no way to tell who supports a candidate. This is less a form of political expression and more a type of physical spam.

Then there’s the case of the mischievous campaign sign that serves to confuse more than clarify.

Catherine McKenna, the Liberal’s Ottawa Centre candidate, has campaign signs that neither mention Trudeau, nor are they in the typical Liberal red. Get out your microscope to see the party logo near the bottom.

There’s a question of integrity with campaign signs, not only in how they allow a candidate to be opaque, but in how fragile they are in the face of vandalism.

If you claim to care about the environment like each party supposedly does, there’s hardly a good argument for using wasteful plastic signs that are bad for the environment.

Even if you use an eco-friendly sign like some candidates have opted for, simply foregoing signs is even more green.

And for every party that promises to give voters a financial advantage, they would do well to set an example and expel this costly form of political advertising in an age where almost everyone in the country has the internet. Your grandma is probably on Facebook. 

“People are often shifting their expression of politics digitally now,” Aivalis said. “In a sense, [you’re] putting down a digital lawn sign.”

Campaigns already dedicate a lot of time and to digital marketing, and maybe it’s time they go all in.

As for voters, there’s an opportunity to be far more nuanced in expressing their political views online.

For all the problems with campaign signs, the biggest benefit may be the visibility it offers local candidates. People will always debate the importance of a local candidate when casting your vote, but there are scenarios in which the neighbourhood contender is a key factor.

In Vancouver Granville, voters may eschew a major party to vote for former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, now an independent candidate. Those in Markham—Stouffville may do the same for JWR’s BFF and fellow independent, Jane Philpott.

Liberal-inclined voters in Toronto’s Humber River—Black Creek may think twice about voting for Judy Srgo, who suggested that Black voters in her riding were happy to see Justin Trudeau in blackface.

For many, however, the cons may still outweigh the few pros. But it's unlikely they’ll be going away any time soon.

“I think in terms of getting rid of signs period, I don't think any campaign would be willing to do that,” admits Aivalis.

Once the election ends, lawn signs will linger for weeks, serving little purpose except to remind us of a miserable campaign. The signs that display a winner will become a symbol of bragging rights; those that display a loser will become a symbol of delusion and denial.

They will also likely linger through many more campaigns, stubbornly planted in the ground, no matter how antiquated they are.

Lead photo by

Mike Yorke

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