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Time to regulate election posters?

Comment & Opinion

RABBITTE RUN Rows of Fianna Fáil candidate Anne Rabbitte’s election posters appeared in Westport last week, although the town is aspiring to be a poster-free zone. Pic: Conor McKeown

It says something about many people’s attitudes to politics right now that one of the biggest talking points in the run-up to this month’s local and European elections has been that of election posters.
Issues, both local and European, appear to be trailing in the wake of the outcry caused by temporary posters appearing on lampposts in the run up to election day.
In Castlebar and Westport there has been a lot of complaints about Fianna Fáil’s European candidate Anne Rabbitte putting up so many posters in those towns.
Many Tidy Towns groups have taken strong leadership on election posters and have asked political parties not to erect posters in their towns for the upcoming elections. Ms Rabbitte has been the most obvious candidate to defy such wishes. It is hardly a wise tactic on her behalf, but raises some wider points.
The Tidy Towns’ campaign is part of a nationwide campaign, posterfree.ie, which aims to do what it says on the tin. On its website, posterfree.ie campaigners point out that corrugated plastic, commonly known as Corriboard, is the material of choice for election posters. Like other single-use plastics, they take over 400 years to biodegrade. In the 2014 local elections, posterfree.ie maintains that an estimated 611,000 posters were erected in Ireland. That, they add, is an area covering the equivalent of 23 Croke Parks.
No one can argue against posterfree.ie’s point. It’s clearly a problem that needs tackling.
But no posters at all? That’s where we feel there’s a need for greater debate.
In his typically engaging County View column, on the following page of this week’s Mayo News, John Healy opens the debate and asks, ‘Have we gone too far in the other direction?’.
There is no doubt that postering in previous elections was done with near reckless abandon, with posters covering every spare inch of any available lamppost. Often, postering is an easier proposition for those with deep pockets, particularly the larger political parties, than it is for many smaller candidates.
This year, around Mayo, posters have largely been conspicuous by their absence – which shows how effective the anti-postering campaign has been.
In Castlebar, the local Tidy Towns group conducted a Facebook survey on people’s views. A huge 92 percent of people expressed a desire to have no posters erected. Leaving aside the fact that such a poll is more likely to engage people against postering than those for or indifferent to whether election posters go up or not, it is still a decisive return.
So why stand in the way of the people’s wishes?
Well the trouble is, as John Healy points out, the lack of posters could well be having an impact on voter engagement in the run-up to the elections, and that is a price we pay at our peril.
While many people might say they will not vote for someone on the basis of seeing them on an election poster – and many hope this is the case – the reality is that posters create awareness about an upcoming election, getting people engaged and talking about the candidates, the issues and so on.
Is it a coincidence that with less than a month to go to the elections, there seems to be very little talk about or engagement with them among the public?
Sure, Europe never tends to excite voters, and perhaps there is a general disengagement with local politics due to the diminished influence of local councillors, but to drive through Castlebar or Westport on the bank holiday Monday, you would barely know an election is coming up. That is cause for concern. Posters will not cure all indifference, but they are an intrinsic factor in the build up to elections.

Rules
Perhaps a middle ground could be reached here, through proper regulation.  
Corrugated plastic posters can – and should – be banned. Limits could also be put on how many posters each candidate is allowed to put up, so that the finances behind a candidate matter little. This would helps to ensure that towns are not flooded with posters.
Take Castlebar Electoral Area as an example. Allow, say, a maximum of five inside the town limits and, say, ten in the rural areas. Stipulate where these posters can go up so that they are not traffic hazards when placed close to roundabouts or junctions. And agree upon a more environmentally friendly poster material than corrugated plastic.
Each candidate could be given a licence that allows them to put up a certain amount of posters only. Breaches of that licence would see considerable fines deducted from their election deposit. The deposit could remain at €100 for those wishing to run a campaign without posters, but be higher for anyone wishing to put up posters and obtain a poster licence.
The civic pride we are seeing with so many people saying no to posters is to be welcomed. It would be great to see that pride transfer to a fuller engagement with politics, both locally and nationally.
Politics affects us all, whether we like it or not. And any measure that risks voter engagement needs to be thought through very carefully.