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Stealing an election? Campaign sign thefts have 6th District on guard

Like almost every available patch of grass, piece of concrete or tree trunk in the sprawling 6th congressional district, Barrett Walker’s Roswell lawn is filled with campaign signs. Eleven, at last count, each one in some way professing strong support for Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Yet one sign in particular stands out. Handwritten in four different shades of Sharpie, it raises a simple question:

“Seriously asking: Why did you steal our Jon Ossoff signs?”

It’s become a common refrain, not just among the Ossoff faithful, but supporters of Republican Karen Handel as well. Residents say signs have been ripped down or stolen right off their private property. Late at night or when they’re away during the day. Repeatedly, in some cases.

Vikki Thomas's campaign sign for Karen Handel is shown in her yard along with signs belong to her neighbors, Friday, June 2, 2017, in Roswell, Ga. Signs have been stolen in the area, but so far, these have survived. ((John Amis)) (John Amis)

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For most of the folks who live in the three northern suburban Atlanta counties that will vote in the June 20th runoff for an open seat in Congress, election day can’t get here fast enough. Along with all the expected national scrutiny of a race that’s widely viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump, one thing no one saw coming: rampant campaign sign theft.

“They went on private property and stole signs,” John Frisbie said of whomever removed 17 Handel signs from supporters’ lawns on two Roswell streets. “I was shocked when I got up in the morning and they were all gone.”

Local police departments have dealt with at least a half-dozen reported incidents of sign theft, with one arrest so far in Roswell. Meanwhile, victims on both sides of the political spectrum are fighting back by placing invisible dog fences around their yards and GPS-enabled tracking devices on signs; posting info about incidents and possible culprits on social networking sites like Facebook and Nextdoor; or, like Walker, quickly replacing the original three Ossoff signs that were swiped off her lawn with nearly a dozen new ones.

Barrett Walker’s son was upset when the first batch of Jon Ossoff signs was stolen off the family’s lawn in Roswell, as this sign -- part of a replacement batch -- suggests. (Jill Vejnoska)

Some of them were made by her children, as one of the signs points out: “My 4 year-old son is scared you’ll steal his Jon Ossoff sign,” it reads, with arrows pointing to where her son’s sign sits farthest from the road, behind a fence.

Frisbie, too, replaced all the stolen Handel signs on his streets and even added a few more where others requested them. Over in Sandy Springs, meanwhile, Esther Levine replaced the first Ossoff sign that was taken off her lawn with three more, which were promptly stolen last week. Soon after replacing those, she said, a neighbor came by with an even bigger Ossoff sign. “He was so upset, he nailed it to a tree on our property, as high up as he could go.”

Spoiler alert: The next morning, Levine’s husband went outside and discovered that sign had been torn off the tree and dumped in some bushes.

  Related video: Campaign sign thefts hit both candidates

Tensions are growing in the 6th District congressional runoff and there are still four weeks to the election.

“I’m definitely not giving up,” she sighed. “But I just cannot believe the viciousness.”

Nearly everyone who’s been hit cycles through similar emotions: Anger and fear at having the sanctuary of their homes violated, disappointment and outrage at what they see as attempts to suppress free speech.

Overriding it all, though, is a bipartisan sense of disbelief. Is this what our increasingly divided political environment has come to, they wonder? Citizens scheming to steal or protect lawn signs of all things?

Vikki Thomas is shown with her campaign sign for Karen Handel in her yard, Friday, June 2, 2017, in Roswell, Ga. When a news report came out about Jon Ossoff signs allegedly being stolen on her street, it got her worried about hers’.  ((John Amis)) (John Amis)

“I guess maybe people hear about a candidate they like getting their signs stolen and they decide to steal the other (candidate’s) out of retribution,” Vikki Thomas hazarded a guess as to possible motivations. “But what do they think, someone’s going to forget who to vote for just because the sign’s not there anymore?”

As Thomas spoke, cars whizzed past the Karen Handel sign displayed in front of her house on Grimes Bridge Road in Roswell. No one had stolen it in the two weeks since she and three neighbors all put out Handel signs.

But you never know. About a week ago, someone managed to snap a photo of a man allegedly pulling up Ossoff signs on the same street, and Thomas quickly texted home to make sure her sign hadn’t suffered the same fate.

Roswell Police officers “are aware that thefts have occurred and are keeping an eye out while they are on routine patrol,” spokeswoman Lisa Holland wrote in an email; the one arrest made so far was for misdemeanor theft (a Twitter user sent them video of the accused taking Ossoff signs) and they’re currently working the case on Grimes Bridge. Of three cases reported to Cobb County police (one involved two separate incidents on the same road), the victims declined to prosecute in one and haven’t returned calls about another, said Sgt. Dana Pierce, who didn’t have information on which candidates’ signs were reported stolen.

Some victims of campaign sign theft are starting to stake their lawns with versions of this one, made by grassroots group Pave It Blue, warning of the repercussions if caught.

“It’s childish stuff, but it is a crime in the state of Georgia,” Pierce said.

Chelsea Clements knows all about it. After the third time (out of five, so far) that the Roswell resident’s Ossoff signs were stolen, she finally called the cops. She declined to press charges against the teen involved — “I don’t want to ruin some kid’s life” — but has since added a couple of signs spelling out the penalties for sign theft to her collection of 14 Ossoff signs near the intersection of Hardscrabble and Chaffin Roads.

Mike Waters removes a Jon Ossoff sign from a utility pole in his daughter, Chelsea Clements, yard earlier this week.

She’s gotten increasingly creative — securing some signs with wires, rigging others with petroleum jelly and glitter — but so have the challenges she’s up against. She’s come home to find a Handel sign left in her yard and earlier this week, Roswell Code Enforcement made her take down a pair of Ossoff signs she had positioned high up on a utility pole.

Discouraged? Hardly. A few days ago, Clements picked up a couple of “Vote Your Ossoff” signs.

“They’re going up next,” she vowed.

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