To stay within the letter of the law in Moorestown, political enthusiasts have had to make some tough choices.
On Nov. 4, residents will be able to pull the lever for candidates in five races - from township council to the Oval Office - even as a local ordinance limits homeowners to two political signs that can be posted for only 30 days before the election.
But with ordinances that restrict the display of political signs facing legal challenges in many states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the Burlington County community decided last month to relax enforcement of its local law.
The Township Council made the move with an eye toward a lawsuit filed against a Passaic County borough in June by the American Civil Liberties Union contesting a similar ordinance. The ACLU claimed it was unconstitutional, and the municipality, Hawthorne, quickly settled, repealing its ordinance last month.
"If there is a compromise that we can reach, that will give everybody their right to free speech and, hopefully, will avoid any necessary litigation against the township that ultimately the taxpayer would have to pay for," said Moorestown Mayor Kevin Aberant.
Local laws restrict a person's right to free speech on private property, opponents say, and in recent years have come under fire in towns from Haddon Heights to Easttown. Ordinances similar to Moorestown's also have been challenged in Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Utah and other states.
"People do get tired of seeing their streets littered with signs, that they sometimes have them for months after the election is over," said Michael Pasquale, the attorney for Hawthorne. "At the same time, you can't lose sight of the fact that the First Amendment permits this."
In Springfield, Delaware County, resident Martin Geiger left his Barack Obama signs up after the April 22 Democratic primary because the area is traditionally Republican and "I wanted to influence as many drivers as I could," he said.
He received a letter from township officials telling him to take down the signs - which were past the time limit - or face sanctions.
After learning that a similar ordinance was challenged by the ACLU in Virginia, Geiger contacted the organization's Pennsylvania chapter. Lawyers for the ACLU sent a letter to Springfield officials in August, saying they would seek a restraining order from a federal judge if the township did not cease enforcement.
Geiger has since been allowed to put back his signs.
The ordinances are "absolutely ubiquitous" in the Pennsylvania suburbs, said Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU. Municipalities usually cooperate when they receive notice that the restrictions are unconstitutional, she said.
"When you start talking about political speech in someone's own front yard, you're talking about the very core of a person's right to express him or herself," said Roper said.
Springfield Township Manager Michael LeFevre agreed.
"Freedom of speech and political freedom of speech is an important issue. . . . You can't blindly just try to enforce the ordinance and not be sensitive to those issues," he said.
The ACLU also forced Easttown to take down a warning notice on a similar ordinance from its Web site last month, according to Roper; town officials declined to comment. The most prominent recent case that the Pennsylvania ACLU took to court came in South Park, near Pittsburgh, this year, resulting in a change to allow political signs on private property at any time.
In Hawthorne, the controversy began after resident Andrew Gause was issued a $100 summons for keeping up his Ron Paul signs after New Jersey's Feb. 5 primary. He was also threatened with fines of up to $1,000 per day unless he took them down, according to published reports. The ACLU then filed its federal suit on his behalf.
Pasquale, the Hawthorne solicitor, said he had received calls from elected officials and municipal attorneys in New Jersey asking what their towns should do. He said he tells them to repeal their ordinances or limit restrictions to safety-related issues such as size and location.
Beverly and Edgewater Park in Burlington County in August also decided to suspend enforcement of their political sign ordinances, citing concerns over potential lawsuits after the Hawthorne case. Beverly limits political signs to 45 days before and five days after an election, said City Council President Luis Crespo.
"If somebody wants to endorse a candidate, we're restricting their right of freedom of speech if we restrict the time that they can have it up," Crespo said.
Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the ACLU in New Jersey, said the issue crops up every few years, especially in hotly contested elections. She praised the recent municipal decisions to not enforce the laws, "because they'd be opening themselves up to litigation for people to practice their First Amendment rights."
LoCicero described Moorestown's ordinance, which limits signs to 30 days before an election and requires residents to obtain a free permit before erecting them, as "one of the more onerous political sign ordinances I've seen."
Moorestown officials acknowledged that part of the reason for the ordinance was keeping up a neat appearance.
Leaders in the local Democratic and Republican Parties have agreed to receive any resident complaints about political signs. Having the township zoning officer not proactively enforce the rules will also free up money in a tough budget year, officials said.
As the election nears, the township will wait until next year to look at formally repealing the ordinance.
"This is something that should be addressed probably next January," said Aberant, "after the political season is finished: Coming up with a common-sense ordinance that would comply with the constitutional standard."