By Brandi Makuski
A representative of the Portage Co. Democratic Party says political sign vandals are up to their election-season tricks once again, and party members are taking it personally.
Dr. Kent Hall said this year the group has erected 111 “Clinton — Kaine” signs across the county; handmade signs in support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine.
In the past month, Hall said, 10 of those signs have been vandalized.
“It’s in mainly rural areas, mainly in the Town of Hull, and I think that fits a pattern that they do it at night, when there’s very little traffic, and they can ‘hit and run’, so to speak,” Hall said.
Hall said the signs were constructed and placed by a team of 21 party volunteers, and are made of wood or press board, ranging in size from one-quarter to one-half inch thick, at a cost of about $1,900.
Hall said he’s filed several complaints with the Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office, but there’s little that can be done unless a culprit is caught in the act.
“This is the time of year where we get a ton of complaints about damaged or stolen signs,” said Sheriff Mike Lukas, who added all the complaints registered by Hall were investigated by deputies. “People think they’re being funny, or they have strong political views and they think if a sign’s gone it means someone’s not going to vote for that person.”
Lukas also said many complaints stem from signs being removed by a street or highway department because they’re illegally placed in the right-of-way.
“A lot of people put their signs in road right-of-ways, and the highway or street departments take them because you can’t have a sign there, and a lot of people think they were stolen,” Lukas said. “You need to check with the city, the village or the highway department to see if they took them down.”
Lukas added to his knowledge, all of Hall’s signs were all placed legally.
“It looks like the last group [of signs] was vandalized with an aluminum baseball bat,” Hall said, who added he believes the vandalism is one-sided and directly solely at the Democratic Party — a claim the sheriff refutes.
“I don’t think we have any formal complaints from the [Portage Co.] Republican Party, but I have seen their signs have been damaged in some areas,” Lukas said. “I’ve talked to some people from the Republican Party who’ve said they have had some damaged or stolen signs but they don’t report them to us.”
Lukas said anyone with a vandalism complaint should call the department’s non-emergency number, 715-346-1500, to file a report.
“We can track times, locations, things like that,” Lukas said. “I’m not going to give you our law enforcement techniques, but we do have strategies we can utilize to try and determine who’s taking [the signs].”
Hall said he just wants the vandalism to stop, and characterized the Portage Co. Democratic Party as one that would take the high road.
“Right now, it’s all one-way and we want to keep it that way,” Hall said. “For what it’s worth, Democrats are not vindictive people for the most part, and after all this is a criminal act. We’re not going out and messing up [Republican] signs as a result, we just want our signs left alone.”
Portage Co. District Attorney Louis Molepske said political sign vandalism is considered criminal damage to property under state law, punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.
But like any crime, he said, his office has to prove the offense “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
“A sign that is vandalized at night with no witnesses is difficult to prove,” Molepske said. “We need to be able to ID the defendant.”
Molepske added the vandalism presented an even larger problem than just a misdemeanor charge.
“The biggest crime, in my mind, is that someone or some people are infringing on other persons’ constitutional rights of free speech — and the right to support a person of their choosing for the elected office,” Molepske said. “The signs in question are expensive and many are handmade so the crime is that much [more] personal to the sign-maker.”
“I take this pretty personal,” Hall said, who added he’s been involved with placing the party’s signs for the past 16 years. “We’ve got four ‘wounded’ signs back up as an act of defiance; we’re saying, ‘Come on, give us your best shot’.”