Petitions Don’t Guarantee Success
What makes a proper petition? And are they useful?
June 27, 2017


We Americans love our petitions, but too many don’t understand how they work.  A well-written petition, directed to the appropriate target, can be an important tool to create change, but it can’t stand alone.  And Internet petitions are useless.

Our Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees our right to “…petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. And Americans love to do just that. We see petitions everywhere: on street corners, at public events, shopping malls, in the mail, and especially online. They cover every sort of topic, at all points on the political spectrum. We present them to officials at every level from our local school boards to Congress and the president.

But because our schools refuse to produce educated citizens, too many Americans believe that merely signing a petition ensures success. It does not. The Bill of Rights says we can petition the government. It does not say that government officials must grant our wishes, no matter how many signatures we collect.

The White House Petition Site
In 2012, the White House launched a petition page, We the People, on its website. Anyone age 13 or older  in the U.S. can submit a petition through the site.  Petition creators get the URL for their petition, and it’s up to them to share that URL around to collect signatures.   White House staffers review all petitions with at least 100,000 signatures within 60 days, forward them to the appropriate government agencies, and issue an official response. You will get an answer, but it may not be the answer you want. 

Today, 48 active petitions are visible on the site.  Petitions need at least 150 signatures to be visible, so there’s no way to know how many petitions have been created.  There is no information about petitions which have received responses since Donald Trump became president.  The topics include demanding the release of the president’s tax returns, and other financial information, and his resignation; permitting the use of cannabis for medical purposes, and permitting farmers to grow hemp; remaining in the Paris Climate Agreement; revoking CNN’s “press pass”; arresting Kathy Griffin for “inciting harm to the president”’ removing Robert Mueller as Department of Justice Special Counsel, and preserving the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

These petitions go directly to the White House. They do not go to Congress, the Supreme Court, governors, state legislatures, mayors, or anywhere else.

While I applaud President Barack Obama’s  intentions and efforts in creating the site, and President Trump’s obliviousness which allows its continued existence, it clearly illustrates Americans’ political ignorance. Most petitions ask the president to pass particular laws or amend the Constitution, even though presidents don’t have that power. And many of them are spelled wrong.  Only the House of Representatives can impeach a president.  But some genius has petitioned President Donald Trump to impeach himself.  And thousands of others signed on to it.

In 2012, a handful of agitators created a petition for each U.S. state. They demanded permission from President Obama to secede from the union. Hundreds of thousands of politically ignorant malcontents signed them. While secession is legal and possible, the president does not have the power to grant such permission. It caused a medium-sized media kerfuffle and got national attention for a couple of weeks.

Writing a Useful Petition
There is no “legal” or “correct” petition format, but there are several essential things to know about writing petitions:

  • Ask for something that’s possible.
  • Direct the petition to the person or group who has the power to give you what you want.

No one can guarantee world peace. Your local mayor can’t balance the federal budget.

  • You can direct a petition to any government official or agency, or even to private
    companies or organizations. It’s merely an organized, public method of asking them to
    solve a problem.
  • The person or group collecting signatures is the sponsor.
  • The person or organization to receive the petition is the target.
  • A good petition includes a descriptive title, the sponsor’s and target’s names, a brief account of the issue, and the desired remedy.
  • State the problem and the solution you seek.
  • Each page should list the title, target, sponsor, and date.
  • The signature section should include spaces for each signer’s printed name, address, and signature.
  • You can add slots for phone number and email address if you like.

Do Petitions Work?
Paper petitions have been around as long as there has been paper. I’ve both signed and circulated many.  

They work if you can get enough signatures and present them to the proper targets, in public, with media coverage.

Internet petitions are trendy now, and several websites offer templates to construct good-looking ones. Plenty of advocacy organizations devote much time and effort to them, but they’re better at harvesting email addresses and spamming you for money than for convincing legislators to change public policy.
Really, they’re a waste of time.

There is no magic number of signatures to guarantee success.

If your public officials don’t want to budge, they won’t, even if you present a billion signatures.

But the more valid signatures you collect, the more likely you are to convince those in power to consider your issue.

Petitions alone are rarely enough to convince government officials to act. They’re just one tool among many in a larger community organizing effort. The other tools include lobbying, rallies and demonstrations, editorials, and public displays such as signs, buttons, and bumper stickers. But that doesn’t mean that you personally have to engage in all of those activities.

The petition organizers are usually working on other organizing methods simultaneously.

If you believe in the issue, signing the petition  can’t hurt. 
It will only help IF the target gets the message.

For more information:
Read the Constitution
Get Your Message to Your Legislators
We the People:  The White House Petition Site

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