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It’s Election Time Again. It’s a Good Idea to Review Your Regulations Regarding Election-Related Political Signs.

October 3, 2012
Category: Elections

[Update: The U.S. Supreme Court's June 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert will likely require the revision of most cities and counties' sign codes, including the examples listed in this blog post. For more information on how this court decision affects the regulation of campaign signs, see our more recent Regulating Political Signs in Election Season blog post.]

It’s election season—the time when planting strips and roadsides bristle with campaign signs, and your city or county is getting calls asking what your local regulations are for political signs. Here’s a quick refresher on the dos and don’ts of political signs.

Campaign signs are protected under the free speech provisions of the U.S. and Washington State constitutions, and local government regulatory authority varies depending on whether signs are placed on private or public property. Signs may cause public safety concerns if placed in or near roadways. They can become trash problems if they are not removed after the elections are over.

Here are some common questions that MRSC gets about controlling these problems:

Can a local government place limits on the amount of time before an election that signs can be put up?

Although cities have tried to limit the amount of time before an election that political signs can be placed, the Washington State Supreme Court has held that limiting political signs to 60 days prior to an election is unconstitutional. In Collier v. Tacoma, 121 Wn.2d 737 (1993), the state supreme court ruled that it is not constitutional to limit the time in advance of an election that political signs can be posted in the places where political signs are allowed.

Can a local government require that signs be removed within a certain amount of time after an election ?

The Collier court allowed a 10-day post-election removal requirement. The court recognized that the rights of political expression do not weigh as heavily post-election,  and it determined that the local government's interest in aesthetics and traffic safety outweighed any individual rights.

Can a local government prohibit political and other signs in the public right-of-way?

Political signs cannot be prohibited in the areas between the street and sidewalk (or in the unpaved section of the right-of-way where there is no sidewalk), commonly referred to as the “parking strip.” However, in our opinion, they can be prohibited in the untraveled area of a right-of-way that does not involve parking strips, such as in boulevard medians or in the middle of roundabouts.

May political signs be placed in a parking strip without the consent of the abutting property owner?

No. As a general rule, the public right-of-way, which include parking strips, is only an easement, and the underlying property belongs to the abutting property owner. As such, only that property owner, or the tenant of the property owner, may determine what, if any, political signs are placed in the parking strip.

Do we have sample election sign regulations?

We have a number of regulations on our website. For more information, see our Sign Control topic page. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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