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On signs, state elections board confuses size with function

What is a billboard? If you said something along the lines of large commercial signs for which businesses or groups pay to place advertisements, you would be wrong, at least in the eyes of the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE).

The SBE has a small item tucked away on the last of the 26 pages of proposed election rule changes it posted on March 1:

For the purpose of Chapter 163, Article 22A, Part 1A, a “billboard” is any sign, flat surface or other display greater than 2,160 square inches.

For those keeping score at home, 2,160 inches is the equivalent of a three-foot by five-foot sign.

If you live in an urban or suburban neighborhood, a three-by-five-foot sign may seem big. But such “barn signs” are a common feature in rural and outer suburban areas where driving speeds are faster and the distance from the road and to the location of signs is often greater.

The strange part is that the definition of “billboard” proposed by the SBE lacks an element commonly associated with billboards: a commercial function. Under the common understanding of what a billboard is, a person or company is paying for advertising or has purchased a billboard to advertise. Under SBE’s proposed definition of billboard, every person who puts up a barn sign supporting their preferred candidate could qualify for membership in the North Carolina Outdoor Advertising Association, North Carolina’s billboard industry group.

Is this a billboard? A Barn sign for Hugh Webster for NC Senate. While the picture was taken in March of 2021, Webster last ran for NC Senate in 2006.

The SBE’s proposed definition of billboard is clearly silly, so what would be the effect if that definition became official? The change would change barn signs into “Print media” in Article 22A, Part 1A of North Carolina election law (page 42) along the lines of campaign pamphlets and newspaper ads that have to have a disclaimer stating who paid for it.

The good news is that people who paint a side of their buildings with a sign for or against a candidate would not be affected unless they spent at least $1,000 on paint.

The bad news is that Part 1A is not the only section of Article 22A that mentions billboards. Part 1 of Article 22A (page 2) includes billboards in its list of “communications media” or “media,” along with newspapers, radio, and television. Such communications media are regulated and limited by state election law. There is no indication that the SBE plans to redefine billboards in that section of Article 22A.

So, at best, the State Board of Elections is seeking to differently define what a billboard is in two sections of the same article of election law. It would be better to keep it simple and keep barn signs and billboards separate.

Andy Jackson / Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity | John Locke Foundation