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What's Your $ign?

The largest ballot in Shelby County history means big change.

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Any Memphian driving during this election season is likely to pass thousands of political signs. They're little, they're big, they're red, black, blue ... and they're everywhere. With the biggest ballot Shelby County's ever seen -- 144 candidates -- those signs represent a heap of cash.

"You have some local guys that are smaller and not running for state appointments," says James Daniels, co-owner and operation manager for GDC Screen Printing. "Usually they're on a budget and try to be practical about their money because they have to spread it across their whole campaign. The larger guys are usually ready to spend more money."

No matter how much one wants to spend, many candidates use a significant portion of their budget on signs. "If I was going to guess, the average smaller political guy will be spending $2,000 to $5,000, and the bigger guys will be spending into the hundreds of thousands," Daniels says.

The price depends on individual size, the number of colors, and the number of signs. A one-color, screen-printed sign in the common 18-by-24-inch size costs about $2 each, while a one-color sign that is 4-by-8-feet costs about $55. If a candidate wants a photograph of their family on their poster, the cost can be up to $100.

And that's just for the sign itself -- the wooden or wire stand can be an additional $50. Multiply that by thousands of signs, and it's serious money.

Direct-mail companies are also experiencing an influx of election projects.

"We're doing a large percentage of political mail, and I get pretty tired," says Robert Hummell, who owns ByteMail, a company that distributes direct mailings. "It's the busiest year I've ever had. ... [The work] goes into the night."

Hummell's increase began last November when candidates started sending out invitations to early fund-raisers. From there, it's only gotten busier: Hummell sends mail for 20 candidates in the judicial sector and several congressional and state candidates. One politician might send out as many as 50,000 items of mail at a time.

The cost for candidates might be worthwhile in the long run.

"Direct mail and signs are key to any campaign," says Joe Cooper, Democratic candidate for the Shelby County Commission's District 5 seat. "Sometimes it can be about 40 percent of your budget."

Cooper is a perennial candidate, having run in various elections in the last 25 years. Each election season, he schedules three mail-outs and posts 3,000 to 4,000 signs, collecting as many as possible afterward to reuse.

"If you're going to do it more than once, you kind of need to save them," Cooper says. "And for a person just starting out, it can be quite expensive."

Another option, Cooper notes, are billboards, which he says "separate the men from the boys." And they should, at several-thousand dollars per month.

Still, printers enjoy the political season.

"If it were year-round, that'd be great," says Daniels.

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