Politics·ASK CBC NEWS

Are election signs still useful? Political observers say yes

Federal parties know how important it is to woo voters on social media, but that doesn’t mean they abandon the traditional way of campaigning — erecting candidate signs on lawns. But do they influence the way Canadians vote?

Signs are frequent targets of vandalism, but help maintain the spirit of democracy

Do election signs affect who we vote for? | Ask CBC News

24 days ago
4:51
Campaign signs have been an election staple for decades. But do they actually influence the way we vote? And is their cost and environmental impact worth it? 4:51

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Whether or not you vote, you can hardly miss the candidate signs installed around your neighbourhood.

During this election, some of these signs have been vandalized or destroyed. Officials from some of the major political parties say these attacks were some of the nastiest they've ever experienced.

A reader asked CBC News why election signs still survive, given this unpleasant reality.

  • Have an election question for CBC News? Email ask@cbc.ca. Your input helps inform our coverage.

Do we still need signs when campaigns have largely gone digital?

Most of the main federal politicians have used social media, in addition to canvassing, to sell their party's platforms. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, for example, turned to TikTok to convey his party's messages, as the video-sharing platform is popular among young voters.

Vincent Raynauld, an affiliate professor of communication studies at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, says election signs still have a great appeal, especially for voters who are shifting away from text-based communication.

Vincent Raynauld says signs on the road, like the ones pictured here in Montreal, can have a visual impact on people who are driving. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC/Radio-Canada)

"Oftentimes, lawn signs are perceived by people when they're driving, and you don't necessarily have a lot of time to slow down and…read what's on the lawn sign," he said.

"So I would say that it's really about visuals … [and] these visuals tend to speak to people's emotions," Raynauld said. 

"Good visuals that are very appealing might push things over the edge and might convince people to go out and vote."

How should signs be designed?

Raynauld says the surrounding environment is a key factor in how election signs are designed.

Some signs are oriented vertically, instead of horizontally, to better withstand high winds, he said, and colours can be adjusted to make the information stand out better, depending on the season.

In the fall, for instance, Raynauld says candidates may want to opt for darker colours on their signs to create a contrast with brightly coloured leaves. 

"If you have a colourful sign, your sign might lose itself in the background of nature," he said. 

A campaign lawn sign for Green Party candidate Nicole O’Byrne in Fredericton. The sign includes colours other than green to contrast with the nearby vegetation. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

In terms of the sign's layout, Raynauld says parties may decide not to feature their leaders, who might not be well-known to some voters, and may include logos symbolizing certain political issues.

"Oftentimes, for certain voters, it's less about the candidate — it's more about the issue," he said. "By integrating issues into the sign, you're not only promoting your candidate, but you're also trying to reach these voters that care about specific issues."

A vertical federal election sign of Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau, with symbols of political issues on the side, in Montreal’s Papineau riding. (Ivanoh Demers/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Are signs effective in swaying voters?

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says his research during the 2015 federal election campaign indicates that the more lawn signs that are erected for a certain candidate, the higher the voter turnout and the better the chance the candidate has of winning.

"Imagine a person who's not following the election very closely, and they see lots of signs [promoting] one candidate. That becomes a [kind of] momentum, and they believe that while everyone else seems to like this person, maybe I should vote for them, too.

"It illustrates the intensity of voting as well — that you [as the lawn sign owner] are really committed to this person, you're not wavering between different parties," Bratt said.

  • Have an election question for CBC News? Email ask@cbc.ca. Your input helps inform our coverage.

Where should signs stand in order to be effective?

Location matters a lot when it comes to how a lawn sign influences neighbours' voting decisions, Bratt says.

"It is very good at single-dwelling homes; it's not good at apartment buildings. And there's no way you could do it in a rural riding."

"If you're walking around the neighbourhood, you are going to be able to visualize that sign a bit more, so corner lots are key, and houses along major routes — either car- or walkways — are important. Cul-de-sacs [are] not nearly as significant," he said.

Federal election signs for candidates in the Central Okanagan–Similkameen–Nicola riding in Kelowna, B.C. Duane Bratt says lawn signs near major roads are more effective in swaying voters. (Winston Szeto/CBC)

Are signs wasteful because they're subject to vandalism?

Bratt says the defacing of signs speaks to the opposite.

"It shows that everybody believes that signs are important if you're willing to vandalize the party that you don't like," he said. 

Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, says many lawn signs are reused for the next election or re-purposed, for instance, in sheds and as insulation.

A vandalized election sign in Montreal for Liberal candidate Steven Guilbeault is seen on Aug. 28. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Marland says it would be difficult to have a proper election without signs around, citing Newfoundland and Labrador's recent mail-in-only election. It was held at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2021 and had a historically low voter turnout rate of an estimated 51 per cent.

"Nobody could go out of their houses, and if they did go out, it was for a walk," he said. "There were no signs around — you had no idea that an election was going on, and it really was frustrating for a lot of people."


Do you have a question about the federal election? Send them to ask@cbc.ca or leave it in the comments. We're answering as many as we can.


 

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