Mark Soisson saw the damaged “Yes on 1” campaign sign on his drive to work. It had a knife and a trench shovel driven through it.

“I think someone is trying to send a message,” Soisson said of the sign supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana statewide.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, found a pro-Donald Trump sign at his Bangor office ripped, twisted and lying on the doorstep.

“Those signs are pretty sturdy,” said Nina McLaughlin, the party’s communications director. “For someone to do that would take a lot of effort.”

Bradley Ronco left his Deering home to find all the “Yes on 3” signs that had lined his block bowled over.

“Everyone should have the right to express their opinion free from harassment or vandalism,” Ronco said.

In an election season marked by angry rhetoric and two unpopular presidential candidates at the top of the ballot, Maine residents are reporting thefts or vandalism of campaign signs placed in private yards and public spaces. It’s a scenario that is playing out around the country, from the Bellingham, Washington, man who electrified his pro-Trump sign to prevent an eighth theft, to the Tennessee lawmaker caught on video stealing his opponent’s signs.

Despite the particularly combative and polarizing tone of this year’s races, law enforcement officials and seasoned political activists in Maine say that vandalizing other people’s political signs is nothing new.

“It happens every cycle,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “People take it personally, but you just have to shake it off.”

Trahan is part of a coalition opposing Question 3, the ballot initiative that would require background checks for most gun sales and transfers in the state. A political veteran with six legislative runs and a slew of referendum campaigns under his belt, Trahan said this year is no worse than others. “It’s just a sad reality,” he said.

History would indicate he’s right. During the 2014 senatorial race in Maine, signs supporting U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ re-election campaign, as well as those for other Republican candidates, including 2nd Congressional District Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Gov. Paul LePage, were defaced with swastikas and suspected gang tags. That year, a group opposing legalization of recreational marijuana in South Portland reported many of its campaign signs were stolen in a single weekend.

“Every election cycle we hear reports of lawn signs that are stolen or vandalized,” said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett. “We encourage all Mainers, regardless of political ideology, to respect the First Amendment rights of their neighbors.”

Under state law, a person caught stealing or defacing a political sign faces a $250 civil penalty. Police say, however, that many offenders may not realize what they are doing is illegal.

“It’s usually young adults doing what they shouldn’t be doing,” said Lt. James Sweatt of the Portland Police Department. “It’s very rare to see an organized effort. We don’t see active work to suppress people’s rights.”

So far this fall, Maine police are reporting a smattering of incidents across the state, but nothing unusual for an election year.

“Over the weekend we did have a young lady around 14 years of age pulling up some Trump signs,” said Lt. John Kilbride of the Falmouth Police Department. “She was stopped and educated and counseled, along with her parents.” However, police do say that repeat offenders could face harsher penalties.

“They could get charged with criminal mischief, theft, a multitude of things depending on what the situation is,” said Sgt. Tim Cotton of the Bangor Police Department.

According to the Maine Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over signs in public rights-of-way, a new law makes it easier for people to contact political campaigns about unwanted signage. Passed in the last legislative session, the law requires that any non-commercial entity posting signs in a public right-of-way include identifying contact information on them, along with dates indicating when the sign was posted and when it should be removed. Under the law, temporary public signs can be posted for six weeks before they must come down.

In theory, the change will enable Mainers to communicate their distaste for one another’s political opinions in less destructive ways.

But Bradley Ronco isn’t terribly optimistic.

“I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you should respect the other person’s opinion,” Ronco said. “We don’t seem to do that anymore.”

Kate McCormick can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

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