Alabamians' campaign signs are being stolen. The culprits are largely unknown. Are they teenagers goofing around? Or the opponents' supporters feel inclined to rid neighborhoods of any trace of what they might consider antipathy?
It certainly isn’t unique to Alabama.
In the event that signs disappear, some rise to the occasion to restore order. The Associated Press calls them “sign ninjas,” activists who assemble campaign signs and then venture “out in the dark to install them along main thoroughfares, planting signs across their districts, and then returning to do it again each time they get stolen.” Some line their signs with Vaseline, glitter and cayenne pepper to stave off thieves, while others tape razor blades across the bottom to teach a different lesson in sign-stealing.
A Florida man recently took two Joe Biden signs from someone’s yard and then came back with a bulldozer to run down their fence, and any other Biden/Harris sign in his path. He was reportedly charged with grand theft auto and trespassing.
Tuscaloosa Police Department spokeswoman Stephanie Taylor confirmed sign-stealing would result in a fourth-degree theft charge. She said it does get reported occasionally and that they investigate them as best they can, like with anything else.
Lowery said the Tuscaloosa area sees sign theft nightly, calling it “a big menace for the last 3-4 weeks." He said it started with more Biden/Harris signs, with few reports of Doug Jones signs gone missing. Lowery said the party believes there’s an organized effort to remove them throughout town, based on vehicle descriptions they’ve received.
“The only thing they can do about it report it to the police department,” Lowery said. “There’s very little police can do without description or tag number. The only thing that they and we as a party can do is report it and ask police to patrol neighborhoods where it happens.”
Northport resident Austin Whitver, who works in the English department at the University of Alabama, said he doesn’t see much point in reporting a stolen sign.
“Petty theft happens. It’s not like the police are going to hunt down a sign thief,” he said. I feel no particular purpose in that. I will not report it. I’ll just get another sign and put it out there.
“I don’t feel there’s a lot of utility in reporting this to the police, but I do feel like there is in a word-of-mouth discussion amongst those people who have a Biden/Harris or Doug Jones sign in their yard being cognizant of the fact that there are sign-stealers going around. It could be one person going around and making it their nightly duty to harass people.”
Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, said it’s generally very common for signs to go missing.
“This is not a new phenomenon at all. It happens every election,” she said. “Complaints are made. It’s very frustrating. There are two sets of income that are really being stolen in the process. First, the candidate or party who has paid for the sign. It is a thing of value. The second is the person who may have donated to have those signs. It’s paramount to someone walking up on your porch or your yard and taking a lawn chair or a wind chime or a garden hose or tools or a lawnmower. It’s trespassing, and it’s theft, to be quite honest with you.”
Lathan chalks it up to people who don’t understand the consequences of the theft, suggesting young people who think it’s funny as the culprits instead of anyone trying to send a political message.
“I would never assume because your sign is missing, a candidate or person from their party stole your sign,” she said. “I would never assume that. I think it’s teenagers pulling pranks very often, quite frankly. It’s hard to catch folks doing it.”
AL.com reached out to voters across the state whose signs were stolen, or their choice to express their political leanings ruffled someone’s feathers. They shared their stories below.
WHEN/HOW WAS YOUR SIGN STOLEN?
AUSTIN WHITVER (Northport; English instructor, University of Alabama): We had a Doug Jones and Biden/Harris sign stolen. We’d literally just moved into our house. They were stolen second or third night we were here.
TERRY LATHAN (Mobile; Chairwoman, Alabama Republican Party): I have a Trump sign in front of my home. Where it’s at, you can’t see it from [inside] my house. I just noticed it was missing. When I did, I started laughing. I have access to Trump signs, trust me.
LACEY CENCULA (Birmingham, Internal auditor): I’ve had a Doug Jones sign in my yard for about a month now. I didn’t know if we were allowed to have them or not. I put it up, and my HOA didn’t send me a letter. Last week, I was out of town. I got a Ring notification that someone was at my doorbell, an older man. I watched him ring it. His car was stopped in the middle of the road. He left. He drove around the back to see if anyone was home. He left. I wasn’t there. I text my neighbor, “Do you know this man? I’m pretty sure that’s an older neighbor.” She talked to him, and he used to be on the HOA board in the 1980s. He told her it’s against the rules to have political yard signs, and they got into a 20-minute argument over it. She was like my proxy.
It was a little shocking to know he stopped his car in the middle of the road and rang the doorbell twice to talk to me about it. I was glad I wasn’t home to have that conversation face-to-face. I do think it was political motivation because my neighbor said he was ‘stuck in the ’80s.’ I can’t imagine he would stop and ring the doorbell if it was a candidate that he probably supported. When I saw him on the camera, I thought I bet it’s about my Doug Jones sign.
Montevallo, Ala., was the subject of a recent piece in The New York Times, titled “In a Small Alabama Town, Suddenly All Politics Is National.” The story focuses on a town known for “once-partisan elections" that suddenly saw “a dynamic shift in the culture” during unexpectedly heated municipal races.
CHERYL PATTON (Montevallo; Real estate agent; Democratic candidate in special election for Alabama House District 49): It was a Doug Jones sign, which I had by the road. I also have a Biden/Harris sign which I put close to the house because I knew those had been stolen pretty regularly around here. I put that strategically by the house. The Doug Jones sign I’d had out there for a month. Two years ago, I had that one for a month, and it was never a problem. I was hoping that one was going to be OK. But it was Saturday night, one of my friends texted me a block away. She said her sign had been stolen, so I looked outside and it was stolen.
DREW RICKEL (Montevallo; Fundraiser for a non-profit in Birmingham; Originally from California): This happened two weeks in a row. Last Saturday night and the Saturday night before that, our Biden/Harris signs were stolen. First time, the Biden sign was stolen, but the Doug Jones sign stayed and the next time both were stolen. The immediate feeling was we’ll get them replaced. I didn’t think it was worth reporting. We’ll just make another donation and another sign will appear. I think it’s likely our current president giving license to people to behave in such a way, encouraging it. Sort of a cult mentality maybe. I’d like to hope it’s a bunch of kids doing it to every sign, but that’s the optimist in me.
BOBBY PIERSON (Montevallo; Retired educator from the Shelby County school district): It happened Saturday night. I noticed when I got up Sunday morning and walked out to get ready to go to church. I had two Biden/Harris signs on my lawn and noticed that they were gone. It was very, very confusing to me because I’ve lived here on Oak Street for 30 years. I’ve put campaign signs in my yard, and this has never happened before. Now, when I say in my yard, the streets have the sidewalk and a strip of land that’s between the sidewalk and the street. I know that’s city property. But for 30 years, that’s never happened, and no one from the city has come by and asked me to pick my signs up.
WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT THE CLIMATE?
These are divisive elections, but what do you think it says about the climate that people think they need to steal campaign signs from other people’s property?
BOBBY PIERSON: To tell you the truth, the political climate in Alabama is atrocious. I myself am a Democrat. If you looked at the outcome of the last few elections, the Republicans are running the state of Alabama with a better than a 60 percent outcome when it comes to political campaigns statewide. You have a few other areas like Montgomery or Birmingham where Democrats stand a chance, but when it comes to statewide, a Democrat for the most part has about a much of a chance as a snowball in hell. That is mind-boggling to me. I can’t seem to understand.
In Alabama, a lot of times, individuals will say to you or say it at one of their campaign commercials, they will say “our” Alabama values. You propose that question to them, “What are Alabama values?” and they can’t answer. They have these little dog-whistle terms that individuals will fall for. The Republican party feels they have the control when it comes to being religious. And they fail to understand that you have people who are Democrats, Republicans, whatever. A lot of us have the same beliefs. But the deal is, people don’t want to treat other individuals as humans. It’s sickening to me. I know we’re talking about stealing signs, but here it is. You have Kay Ivey, who’s the governor of the state of Alabama. When she ran for office, she didn’t do not one debate with anyone. Not at all, because statewide, if you put that ‘R’ behind your name, 99 percent of the time, you’re going to get elected.
AUSTIN WHITVER: I don’t know. Like you said, divisive. I don’t know what I can say about that. It certainly is indicative of a lack of respect. It seems disheartening. It’s a very red state, but the Tuscaloosa area tends to be fairly blue-leaning. It’s basically vandalism, stealing property from someone. It’s disheartening. It seems to be something that is happening to a lot of people, particularly Doug Jones signs, getting taken by a lot of people in Tuscaloosa and other areas. I constantly am seeing people on my Twitter feed talking about their signs being stolen as well.
LACEY CENCULA: It really does speak to how divisive this upcoming election is. I’ve never had a yard sign. Who knows how much of it is teenagers stealing stuff to be funny? This guy was an older gentleman who really felt the need to stop his car, ring the doorbell and talk to me about this. I can’t say I would ever be inspired to do that, to take time out of my day to stop at someone’s house and say I disagree with your sign. Even if he was coming from “This isn’t allowed by the rules,” he isn’t on the HOA board. The proper protocol would be to contact them and let them handle it. That’s why I think it was probably politically motivated. It does speak to have divisive the environment is, that people have the audacity want to do that.
CHERYL PATTON: It’s this us/them mentality that’s happening. I’ve never seen it so much where people lumping everyone who believes in one way together and then demonizing them. Yeah, probably it happens both sides. But as a minority group in this state, it feels little scary that you’re considered amoral. Two years ago when we were out doing sign-waving for Doug Jones, there were people coming by and screaming at us that we were murderers and baby-killers. School had just let out, buses went by and almost all of the school bus drivers flipped me off. And I was like “What? Excuse me?” But that was two years ago. So yeah, it’s not fun to be a Democrat here.
DREW RICKEL: I honestly don’t know. I think it’s years and years and years of “othering” the other sides of political discussion. Trying to make it so that you’re dehumanizing your opponent. You don’t see them of worthy of having a conversation anymore. It’s just you’re subhuman to me, I’m going to take this thing that makes me angry that I see. Thankfully that’s all it is, just taking the sign and not outright vandalism.
Do you feel the same way about the folks who steal signs? Are they “subhuman?”
DREW RICKEL: I wouldn’t go so far to say that. It’s more of a thoughtless, careless action. It’s a lack of empathy and a lack of even wanting to have discourse. My view of that is it’s just kind of sad. It’s really not a well thought-out thing. It’s a political sign. There’s obviously an abundance of them. I can get another one fairly easily. I don’t think it’s a whole lot of thought put into it. That’s sad, to me. I wish we would take a little more time to be more considerate, especially of our neighbors. I do have ill will, but I don’t wish anything bad upon them.
TERRY LATHAN: I’m not sure if there’s a one-size-fits-all answer because it depends on the motivation of the person. I think most of these are young people doing young people stupid stuff. It’s happened every single election. If we find an adult or grownup participating in this silliness, I just can’t imagine why they would spend their time and efforts acting juvenile.
Republican or Democrat, regardless, it’s disrespectful to the homeowner or the voter. To me, that makes them as mad as a physical sign being gone. There is a money value here. I don’t think people who take these signs understand the legalities of it. If you came on my property and you opened an unlocked car in my garage and you took something of a small value, that’s trespassing and theft. A yard sign is no different. I’m just not sure folks think of it like that. But it’s very common.
DEXTER LOWERY (Tuscaloosa; Chairman of the Tuscaloosa County Democratic Party): Obviously the person doing that kind of thing would or should know that it’s not gonna have any effect on the outcome of an election. I would think most people would know that. It seems to me to be pure ignorance suits better than anything else. I see i, as a bleed off of what’s happening in other states with newer right-wing and racist organizations springing up around the country. It’s beginning to make its way to Alabama. If it was a sign come up missing here and there, I would write it off to somebody didn’t like a particular candidate. But the numbers we’re seeing, we know it’s not just some random thing.
DID YOU EXPECT THIS IN ALABAMA?
Earlier this month in Valhermoso Springs in Morgan County, Ala., a woman parked her car near the street near the Biden signs in her yard, and someone spray-painted “Trump” in orange across the hood of her white car. It happened after Vicky Gibbons allowed a Democratic volunteer to put Biden signs in her yard this week after he asked permission. The paint job didn’t surprise her. “It’s what I would expect from the kind of people Trump has attracted as additions to the Republican Party,” she said
As a supporters of Democratic candidates in Alabama, is this something you expected might happen at some point?
BOBBY PIERSON: It was a big surprise to me. The reason why is because I am a retired educator. I live on Oak Street. Montevallo High School is across the street from where I live, where I retired from. I am a former teacher, coach and bus driver at the high school. No one has ever done anything to my property such as that before. One time back in the ’90s, I have an oak tree in my front yard, and my oak tree got rolled. I found out 15 years later who it was. It was two of my former favorite students. They told someone they rolled my yard, and the reason why is I would tell them my yard has never been rolled, and thank you for respecting me to go clean up the toilet paper.
But when I saw my signs were stolen, some people call it removed but when you on someone’s property and take it, I call it stealing. Since that happened, I have two more Biden/Harris signs, I have a Doug Jones sign, and a student at Montevallo High School just yesterday gave me a Biden/Harris sign. Now, every afternoon before I lock my door at night, the new signs that I have, I take them up because I don’t want that to happen again. It’s mind-blowing to me. It’s like someone who already has two dozen donuts, then you have three and they want to steal your three. It makes no sense to me.
AUSTIN WHITVER: Anyone who votes for Democratic candidates in this state is aware that putting Democratic bumper sticker on your car is endangering that car for having windows knocked out. You don’t want to in trying to prevent signs from being stolen from our yards, prank someone who does that kind of thing because you’re afraid of getting your window smashed. You never want to escalate, is what I’m saying.
LACEY CENCULA: Yes. I’ve been expecting this since I put it up. I also tweeted I had two instances...my sign was taken down and put in front of my front door. That happened twice. I tweeted a poll. Did this fall over or was it taken down? I landed on it was the yard people. Whoever put it there was out of the camera view. If it was done with malice, they would have just stolen it.
CHERYL PATTON: I thought in this community I was in a bubble and thought I was OK here. I worried about it when I had a Doug Jones bumper sticker on my car, and I worried about my car getting damaged because of that. It didn’t. I don’t have one now. I didn’t think my car would be safe.
DREW RICKEL: I find it pretty surprising in our town. We’re a little college town. It’s typically not that vitriolic. We’ve had conversations with other members in our community who don’t have the same views, and it’s always a very genial conversation. It’s a little surprising to have it actually resort to thievery.
TERRY LATHAN: It didn’t bother me or make me mad. In fact, I kind of expected it and am not surprised. Honestly, that type of activity in my mind is what I call Lilliputian activity. That’s low on the totem pole. All it’s gonna do is even further cement a voter of that household to go vote. No one’s not going to go vote if their sign got stolen. If anything, it’s gonna make them go do it even more. It’s really silly when it comes right down to it.
DO YOU CONSIDER THIS VOTER INTIMIDATION?
DEXTER LOWERY: It’s sort of puzzling. I do think that Donald Trump is going to carry Alabama. I don’t think it’s a matter of voter intimidation. In the mind of the people doing it, they might consider it voter intimidation. It’s actually, from what I’m hearing, having an opposite effect. It makes people more determined than ever. The people that come in to get a replacement sign say they’re not going to be intimidated. It’s probably to some degree an effort in intimidation, but in that regard, it would take someone that would be awfully, awfully unknowing about the political process, to think stealing a yard sign is going to cause somebody not to vote or vote for some other candidate. That’s some really, really juvenile thinking.
LACEY CENCULA: Yeah I think it did, especially considering he’s an older man and I’m a younger woman. I didn’t like the feeling. That had some intimidation factor already in it. It did make me feel a little uneasy, which is why I ended up taking it down even though no one in any official capacity told me to. I got a little nervous.
CHERYL PATTON: Sure. Yeah. Again, I really thought I was in a bubble here. I thought it was safe in this community. But yeah, that scared me. But I’ve ordered my next sign, so hopefully it’ll be here in a couple of days.
DREW RICKEL: It would be ridiculous if I decided my political views were going to change drastically because somebody took a sign. I wouldn’t have thought too deeply about who I was voting for if that was the case. It’s not that I think that my sign is going to change anybody’s mind and cause them to vote for whoever. We are in the middle of a red state, and it does give people the idea that there are people who support this candidate. It gives a hope that your vote isn’t being cast into the abyss.
MESSAGE TO RELUCTANT SUPPORTERS
DEXTER LOWERY: What I’m advising people to do is put the signs close to their house. Take the sign down at night. Put it back up in the day time. Just put it where they can see it and don’t put it too close to the street. Be careful in that regard. It’s the only thing we can do. We replace the signs if people come in and ask for replacements. We even deliver signs if a person can drive into the office.
TERRY LATHAN: I think it just depends upon the individual. Some of them are going to get mad as a hornet and go back and get signs and they’re determined to make decisions on their own property. Others it may intimidate and may think it’s not worth it and don’t want to get singled out. I don’t think it’s wrong either way. It just depends upon the voter and how far they’re willing to go to show their support, or if they want to be a little more quiet about it. I just don’t think that’s a one-size-fits-all scenario. But it’s not going to change one single vote regardless. Signs don’t vote.