Petitions, virtual and otherwise

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees “the people” the right to assembly and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. ”  Do petitions matter?  How?

Signing a piece of paper is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to make your opinion known.  The obvious goal is to accumulate a large number of names, and then deliver them in some dramatic fashion to an authority who will then be so impressed by the numbers and sincerity that he changes policy.  The delivery can create a powerful image, but generally authorities can avoid responding if they don’t want to.  At right is a photo of boxes of petitions requesting clemency for Troy Davis, sentenced to death in 1991 for killing a police officer.  Amnesty International, which opposes the death penalty in general, mobilized on Davis’s behalf, noting that the prosecution’s case was based on testimony of nine witnesses, seven of

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whom had signed affidavits recanting their testimonies.  In addition to filing legal appeals, organizers delivered 600,000 signatures to the Georgia Board of Prisons and Paroles on September 15, 2011 (20 years after the conviction).  Georgia executed Davis less than a week later.

But the petition campaign was still a way to raise larger issues about race and justice in the American legal system, and certainly about the death penalty more broadly.  In the old civics textbook style of politics, volunteers take the petitions door to door, talking to their neighbors, educating the public, and building organizations.

And sometimes, the petition process is built into the law.  In many states, including California, initiative petitions can place a referendum on the ballot.  In Wisconsin, a successful petition campaign triggered the upcoming recall election for Governor Scott Walker.  Activists gathered more than a million signatures, far more than legally necessary, and delivered them by the truckload.  Gathering signatures was one important stage in building support and infrastructure for the election.

Surely some petition campaigns can still work that way, but:

Professional signature collectors are more reliable than volunteers.  Paid by the signature, they work longer hours than volunteers, camped in front of shopping centers or government buildings.  To diversify their efforts, they often carry many petitions, so there is something of interest for anyone who walks by.  (I’ve been approached by a petitioner who asked me if I wanted to raise or lower taxes in California.  He had a petition that would help me either way.)  The expression was there, but certainly not the education or organization building.  In California, at least, initiative petitions and referenda are routes increasingly taken by well-funded interests, whose connection to “the people” may be tenuous.

New social media have made signing petitions even easier–and more detached from actual organization building.  Since last year, has provided anyone with interest the opportunity to create a petition campaign quickly.  Each month the site adds one million users and starts 15,000 campaigns.  (Have you been contacted by one or another?  Every day?)  Signing a petition online takes even less effort than doing it in ink.  Someone told me she signs 20-30 at a clip when she feels like civic engagement.  Obviously, it’s not so much engagement.

Almost all of the petitions wallow in the e-ther without doing much of anything, but the organization claims some successes:

Ultimately, the measure of our community’s success is our collective impact — our ability to identify problems, mobilize people, and create real change.

From the first day we launched, members have won hundreds of campaigns in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. Each victory doesn’t just overcome an isolated case of inequality or injustice — it allows people to view important issues through a tangible, often personal lens, inspiring them to take further action and helping to build the deep commitment, connections, and momentum necessary to make ever-larger change possible.

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Of course,, which supports 44 staffers and generated an estimated $5 million in revenues last year (non-profits pay a fee for each campaign they start), has an interest in demonstrating (and claiming) influence.

And then there’s Trayvon Martin.  Weeks after Martin was shot to death, with no charges or arrests forthcoming, Martin’s parents and supporters took to the e-petition.  It went viral and global quickly, generating 2.2 million signatures, national attention, and the appointment of a special prosecutor.  Sometimes, the petition can be at the core of a successful organizing campaign.

But here’s another question:  After signing a petition, do you feel inspired to do more?  or satisfied for discharging your duty?

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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