Robbed of five Bush-Cheney lawn signs in the last two weeks and none too happy about it, Olga Fairfax of Wheaton has decided this presidential race is the "rottenest, dirtiest, meanest, lowdown campaign there has ever been."

Ten miles away in Glen Echo, Cathy Kohn was one of dozens who have had Kerry-Edwards signs swiped from their yards.

"Mine was completely taken away," Kohn said. "Just plucked out of the ground."

Talk to people at campaign headquarters across the Washington area, Democratic or Republican, and you'll hear a flood of similar complaints. Campaign-sign thievery, a staple of electoral politics, has soared this year, they say. Signs also are being chopped, slashed, burned and even, in one odd case, smeared with manure.

But check in with police from across the region and the picture changes considerably. They say the number of sign-theft reports is not unusually high this year.

"Honestly, it's about the same" as other election years, said Montgomery County police spokesman Derek Baliles. "It's not unusual for us to get reports of political signs being vandalized, and that's again the case this year."

A great paradox? Or just another odd twist in this oddly twisted election year? Are sign shenanigans up, with victims just not bothering to tell police? Are tensions so high this election that people are noticing things they otherwise might have ignored?

Nobody can say for sure. But there are a few theories.

"There aren't that many signs out there," said Susan Scala-Demby, Montgomery County's permitting services manager. She canceled the department's election "sign sweep" to remove signs placed illegally on highway rights of way. There had been just 15 complaints about them, when normally there are more than 50.

"Sometimes people think they're stolen when they're actually not," according to Capt. Joseph Montminy of the Charles County Sheriff's Office, who said he has not received a single report this year of campaign-sign theft. "Sometimes they'll attach them to a property owner's property, and the property owner will take it down."

It's a different story in Ohio, Florida and other swing states, where the election is a dogfight between the Bush and Kerry camps. Sign crime has bloomed in those states this year, according to campaign officials and news reports.

But both campaigns generally have ignored the Washington region. Maryland and the District are firmly in the blue column, and Virginia is in the red on the electoral map.

Still, Washington is the center of American politics, with perhaps the most politically astute population in the country, and rarely is it immune to any political ill will that afflicts the rest of the nation. So it has been with sign swiping.

"This is crazy. This is an invasion of private property," complained Ernie Pappajohn, who lost two Bush-Cheney signs from in front of his house in the usually civil neighborhood of Chevy Chase, D.C., and had a third sign vandalized twice. "I'm going to get a giant Bush banner and hang it up across the front of my house now."

Howard County police arrested three people after Bush-Cheney signs were destroyed. Officers had staked out a spot on Route 40 and watched the signs. The three were charged with malicious destruction of property, police said.

Elsewhere, signs in Howard County were set ablaze.

"Two signs at a private residence in Ellicott City were set on fire, and the fire caught the resident's fence and bushes as well," said Pfc. David Proulx of the Howard County Police Department.

Campaign workers in Virginia use such words as "vicious," "persecution" and "intimidation" to describe the tenor of what some say are the worst "sign wars" they have seen.

"We have had signs torn down, signs stolen, signs desecrated. We've even had signs telling people not to take our signs torn down," said Laura Bland, spokeswoman for the Virginia Democratic Party. "In little Lynchburg alone, 300 signs have been stolen or vandalized."

At Democratic headquarters in Norfolk, pro-Bush slogans were spray-painted across the brick exterior of the building, along with the word "Commie."

"In all my years of political work, I've never been called a Commie before," Bland said.

Ginny Peters, chair of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee and herself a victim of sign theft, said her office hears from local Democrats every day about the same thing.

"Everybody's complaining," she said. "Signs disappear every year, but not with the regularity and intensity."

Of course, Republicans say their signs have been targeted, too.

"A lot of people are calling and saying, 'How come Bush and Cheney don't have signs on the road?' " said Fred Morales, a volunteer with the Fairfax County Republican Committee. He said the office has received hundreds of such complaints in recent weeks.

Some of the thefts have been brazen assaults in broad daylight.

O.P. Ditch, a volunteer with the Prince William County Republican Committee, was planting Bush-Cheney signs on a hill near Minnieville Road and Prince William Parkway recently when he spied a woman hop out of her car and snatch two Bush-Cheney signs. Ditch leapt into action.

"I came running and yelling at her," said Ditch, 66. "She said, 'Oh, I need these, I need these,' " as though she were a Republican.

Ditch did not buy it. He grabbed the signs and jotted down the woman's license plate number, which he reported to police, who have not tracked down the suspect.

Prosecutions for stealing signs are rare, officials said.

Police departments in Virginia and Maryland said the majority of calls for sign theft or vandalism are handled over the phone: An officer writes up a report, and if any information about a suspect comes in, they may dispatch an officer.

There are no laws specifically aimed at sign theft or vandalism. Theoretically, a sign thief could be charged with simple theft.

James Gimpel, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, said police reports wouldn't necessarily reflect the quantity of sign theft going on.

"Probably most of these things go unreported to the police," he said. "No matter what the call volume is, only a few people would report this kind of thing."

As to the effect campaign signs have on an election? That question is essentially settled, Gimpel said.

"There is no evidence whatsoever" that yard signs do anything to change voters' minds, he said.

Why, then, do they seem to arouse such passions?

"Communities reward conformity and put social pressure on nonconformists" Gimpel said. "You're going to find this thing where you have Democrats in heavily GOP areas or Republicans living in a heavily Democratic area."

For victims of sign theft, as with victims of other simple thefts, the damage is more psychological than anything else, said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.

"Victims of burglary cases are often more upset by the fact that somebody broke into their house, invaded the privacy or sanctity of their home, than concerned about the items taken," he said. "It's not dissimilar in these kinds of cases, where somebody is coming on to their property and blatantly violating their right to political expression. That's more of a concern than whether it's going to cost John Kerry or George Bush the election."

Passions can get so high that people find their sign gone and assume -- wrongly, in some cases -- something nefarious.

In 2000, the Charles County Sheriff's Office got so many complaints about a presidential candidate's sign being knocked down that a cruiser was sent to monitor the field where it stood, said Montminy, who did not recall which candidate the sign represented.

The deputies found the allegation was true: Someone didn't like the sign at all and was knocking it over.

But there was no arrest. It was a horse.

Staff writers Tim Craig and Vincent P. Bzdek and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.