By Dave Russell
As reliable as Haley’s Comet, when election season rolls around reports of stolen or vandalized campaign signs follow.
One sure thing: It’s not just “the other guys.” Both major parties in Jackson County report signs missing, painted or torn up.
“I’ve heard from so many of our folks here who have put them out, it seems vandals just toss them or completely remove them,” said Marilynn Davis, a volunteer at Jackson County Democratic Party Headquarters. “I would say it has been hundreds. It has been pretty rampant.”
Davis placed two along N.C. 107 at Walmart herself.
“Those were gone within the week,” she said. “I have not replaced them yet because I have to pay for them just like everybody else, and they are $5 apiece.”
“We had some that were spray-painted with a circle with a line through it, we’ve had some that we have put out that they have just disappeared,” said Cynthia Burke, JCDP first vice chair. “We’ve put out about 300 ‘Joe Biden’ signs and if you look around the county, you are not going to see many of them. Of all the candidates, we’re having Biden signs stolen the most.”
There is more contention between the parties than ever, Burke said.
That leads to the sign issues, Jackson County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Burrell said.
“I know it is worse than it has been in the past,” he said. “People who are putting out signs say they are gone the next day. I hear more of that, and I don’t see a lot of signs that I know have been put out.”
Burrell said he had reached out to Western Carolina University officials to warn students.
“And I’ve talked to (former Jackson County GOP chair) Ralph Slaughter and we thought it would be a good idea to put out a joint statement of some kind but we have not done that yet,” Burrell said.
Both parties have heard rumors about why the signs face destruction.
Democrats heard someone put out a bounty on Biden signs and was paying for them to be stolen, they said.
The GOP has heard about a TikTok challenge leading to Republican sign disappearances, said Jack Debnam, new party chair.
TikTok is an online video platform that has a reputation for stunts as users engage in outrageous behavior to attract viewers. TikTok is infamous for viral videos of, for example, people licking ice cream in grocery stores and putting it back in the freezer.
“What I have come to find out is there is something going on with the college students and TikTok,” he said. “There have been a couple of students who were approached when they had a couple of signs and TikTok seemed to come out when they were challenged. I’ve asked the Sheriff’s Department to look into it. We’ve lost between 300 and 500 so far. It’s mainly Trump signs and some of the (Madison) Cawthorn signs.”
Trump signs that once lined U.S. 23/74 from Sylva to Balsam Gap are all gone now, he said.
“They seem to be tearing or cutting them in two,” he said. “I hope it is not somebody that is involved in party politics on either side.”
Slaughter, who is now GOP first vice chair, said splinter groups might be a cause of the problem.
“I think there are other people involved in destroying signs other than the Democratic Party, like Antifa or Black Lives Matter,” he said. “I also think that some of it, it’s not that they are necessarily tearing up the signs, but I do understand that for many of the younger people, especially the college kids, this is going to be a memento for them to have for years, and that’s a Trump sign, a collector’s item. We actually caught a student who was taking a Trump sign as part of a collection.”
No charges were filed in that incident, he said.
While local law enforcement knows of the problem, not many reports are filed.
“I’m not aware of any official reports being filed this year with our agency,” Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton said. “This is a common complaint every election. Some may be stolen, but I’ve found that many times the signs are placed somewhere they weren’t supposed to be and end up being removed.”
Enforcement is tough, he said.
“It would almost require an officer to witness the sign being taken to be able to file a charge,” Hatton said.
“I looked back a couple of weeks and saw one report of a stolen Trump sign from the Wilson Creek Road area,” said Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. “You can report it to the Board of Elections, but for criminal purposes, if someone wants to file a larceny report they would do that through the law enforcement jurisdiction where the offense occurred.”
Tampering with campaign signs, including stealing, moving, defacing or vandalizing them is a Class 3 misdemeanor.
Anyone convicted of a Class 3 misdemeanor could face up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine.