Online Petitions: Simple and Effective Democracy

Following the surprising acquittal of Casey Anthony, nearly a million people united on Change.org, calling for legislators to make it a felony for a parent or guardian not to promptly notify law enforcement of a missing child. In the days since, lawmakers in 16 states have drafted a version of Caylee’s Law; some, like Rep. Paul Wesselhoft (R-Okla.), cited “a lot of emails from my constituents who are very outraged.”

Fundamentally, petitions make it easy for people to say they care about an issue by affixing their name to a pre-existing statement. Although online petitions such as Caylee’s Law have come under fire for encouraging political laziness, simplifying the political process has significant benefits.

Petitions encourage simple, tangible action on issues that people care about. People often get outraged at the news; petitions provide the same function, but with a potential for results. At the most basic level, this is better than yelling at the TV. Furthermore, contacting a national, state, or local government official about an issue and signing a petition are the most popular forms of political action after voting (30% and 32%, respectively, of the voting population engaged in these actions in 2008). Political action should always be encouraged. Petitions most closely resemble absolute democracy: a personal vote of yay or nay on a given issue. To argue that simplicity encourages triviality undermines the basic principle of democracy, that people have a right to their voice. To make the political system more complex only serves to disenfranchise, not enhance.

Yet some accuse so-called “clicktivism” as lazier than politics of earlier generations. Instead, online petitions should be seen as a gateway drug: The best petitions, signed by thousands or millions, include a “next step” with contact information of relevant representatives and opportunities for other actions.

And success stories are plentiful. Avaaz, an international petition site, was able to convince Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta to prevent hotel activity in the sex trade. 317,000 “Avaazers” urged him to change policies or risk a series of damning advertisements in his hometown, funded with money raised by the organization. According to the website, “We got a frantic call from his vice-president – 'You're going to WHAT?' We gave them four days, and they signed. Now 180,000 hotel employees will be trained to spot and prevent the horror of sex slavery of women and girls.”

However, there are valid criticisms of current online petitions. Some fail to deliver signatures, recipients ignore them, and staffers are unsure of how to deal with an overload of people that may or may not be constituents. However, the solution is not to abandon petitions. We must improve the system to become functional and efficient.

Marci Harris, CEO of POPVOX and former Hill staffer, believes that online petitions are entering a second stage of development. “The first wave of online activism focused on quantity. But, one million people calling Congress to say ‘protect the environment’ is not an effective strategy.” Representatives are limited to two actions on any given bill: to cosponsor and to vote yay or nay. Practical petitioning should therefore ask them to do these things, or to take other direct actions within their power, such asking a governor to veto a bill.

“I think the next wave is about quality: Real people with real stories making a request for real action on a transparent platform that makes information available when it is needed,” Harris said. Her program, POPVOX, gives voters a way to contact Congress in a way Congress can understand. By letting people directly support or oppose bills their representatives will be voting on and forwarding this information in a format that Congressional aides understand, POPVOX may just be the future of good online petitions. Nearly all constituents using the program receive a reply from their representative’s office, noting that their voice has been heard and may be acted on.

And for those who insist on the power of rallies – it is much stronger to start a rally after taking all other possible options. Petitions help augment and encourage political involvement by making it a specific and regular action.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Allison Gofman

Allison Gofman is a sophomore at Harvard University studying History of Science or Neurobiology. She is the Secretary of the College Democrats and is active on the Parliamentary Debate team and the Institute of Politics. She hopes to work in science and technology policy upon graduating.

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