Election season is on, and campaign signs are popping up all over. I've read that campaign signs do little to influence voters' decisions, but they're part of tradition just like red, white and blue bunting.

In small communities like ours, a sign on a particular lawn may not even indicate how that resident will vote. It's hard to say no to a request to post a sign unless you're particularly courageous or openly committed to another candidate. Finding a polite way to reject a sign isn't easy, especially if the candidate who's asking has a reputation for mean-spirited or vindictive behavior. Most of the time, most of us try to avoid conflict.

In one Ilwaco election, a neighbor told me a campaign sign popped up on her lawn without her explicit permission. I say "explicit" because this neighbor said she'd attended what she thought was a social event, signed what she thought was a guest book, and eventually found a campaign sign on her lawn and her name published on a list of supporters of that candidate - someone she wasn't going to vote for.

Obviously, in this day of misleading ballot measures, we all should read carefully whatever someone asks us to sign - but it is also possible that some campaigners take advantage of small town dynamics that make direct confrontations a rare occurrence. Unlike living in a large city, we have to figure out how to live with people who have very different political views, attitudes and values - people we encounter regularly in the grocery store, post office, or coffee shop. Anonymity isn't really possible, but looking the other way is.

For example, although I often saw the emergency room physician who topped (and therefore killed) large spruce trees on his neighbor's property in order to improve the view (and selling price) of his Neahkahnie Mountain ocean view lot, I never said a thing to him directly - even though every time I saw him I remembered the incident and was reminded that he had behaved like a self-centered, rapacious jerk.

A similar example involves a prominent and ostensibly economically well-off member of a family with deep roots on the Peninsula who cut down the last old growth trees fringing Ilwaco, got busted by fish cops for violating regulations, and procrastinated about filing financial reports required for running for public office ... but I doubt anyone confronts this person directly. When examples such as these exist in small towns, a little verbal arm-twisting over campaign signs is small potatoes.

But there are big potatoes at stake in every election, whether or not we voters always realize it. Effective elected officials can maintain services through good management or prevent a town from going bankrupt. Good public officials study issues, listen to all constituents and understand and follow the laws - or change them if that's what's needed.

Unfortunately, the conduct of government has become highly complex even in a small town and most of us just "let George do it." Someone else can struggle with long meetings, tomes of technical material to study, and the occasional citizen complaint. Thoughtful consideration of these demands elevates elections beyond popularity contests; candidates' motives, characters, and work habits become crucial. Unfortunately, lawn signs don't do much to inform and are little more than pom-poms for a cheering section - sometimes displayed, not as evidence of conviction, but merely to avoid standing out from the crowd - much like high school students focused on fitting in.

This fall we're facing election choices ranging from the very local all the way to the U.S. presidency. After the drama of the Democratic Party primary, the general election seems pale by comparison. Perhaps that's because the differences between Barack Obama and John McCain are still so clear, even given Obama's apparent move toward the center on several issues. A sign on our property promoting Obama was torn to shreds, while a nearby sign supporting a county commissioner candidate remained unscathed. That was done surreptitiously and anonymously, so no matter how much courage I may or may not have, there will be no confrontation.

This only reminds me how fortunate we are to have elections by secret ballot. The higher the stakes, the more aggressive the contenders can be ... witness the recent election in Zimbabwe, where people faced threats of personal violence if they failed to vote the "right" way. Even here in America, we sometimes require anonymity to express our convictions, even if only to tear up a campaign sign. I guess it could be worse.

Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who's been intrigued by politics since childhood when her mom had to hide the fact she'd voted for a Republican.

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