Online Petitions

When I was a kid, the running joke was that dad always stole our black magic markers. We had every other color in our art kits, except for black. Why? Because dad used them to make protest signs. And then he would round up the three of us to march around in a circle with other people protesting something or another.

Before he was a marker-stealing dad, he attended civil rights marches and anti-war rallies in DC. He even had a confrontation with Dan Rather, because Rather chose to interview the long haired hippies at the rallies instead of the clean cut college kids, who were the majority of the protesters. Later, after we arrived, he got involved in local politics in Rockland County. He stopped Reynolds Aluminum from building a factory next to Congers Lake and ran for office on a third party.

All those fights, especially his run for office, required a lot of signatures. Dad enlisted my help. We would walk up and down blocks with clip boards. I was only five or six, so I would ring the doorbell and thrust a clipboard in the face of the person answering the door. The person would usually read the petition and sign it. If not, I would have to call over my dad who was working the other side of the street to explain what we needed.

Each one of those signatures took a lot of leg work and discussions. People often had to be convinced to sign the petition either by reading the paragraph on the clip board or by my dad talking to them for five or even ten minutes. One page of signatures took an hour of work. And petitions signers learned something from talking to my dad about the issues. They met him and sized him up. There were handshakes and chitchat about local issues.

Last week, an article in the New York Times directed me to a website to sign a petition for those two young, women reporters who are being held by North Korea and in labor prison camps. I've read about North Korean's labor camps, so I clicked on the link to sign the petition. After I did, I poked around the website to see what it was about.

It was a website that created petitions for various political causes. Their slogan is "start a petition, change the world." They claim to have gotten 37 million signatures. It champions several issues and provides templates to create your own petitions.

But the causes that they championed were so Politics Lite. They had one that asked you to "Save the Polar Bears." The petition consisted of a large picture of mama polar bear and her cub. It had one sentence on global warming, but didn't provide any information about particular policies. It didn't have any links to reputable sources for other political or scientific studies on this issue. Other issues that are hot are animal cruelty and school bullying. The school bullying petition shows a video of sad kids. 

This website owes more to Angelina Jolie than Saul Alinsky. It's Politics Lite. On the one hand, these websites might bring in people who are traditionally afraid of politics. By signing their first petition, it would become a stepping stone to other activities.

On the other hand, there is something really offensive about these projects. It cheapens the process. Petitions no longer mean anything if someone with next to no effort can gather 1,000 signatures, just by posting a picture of a sad polar bear. Nobody learns anything from signing this petition, because there is no content on the web page and no real live person to talk to about it.

Also, Stuart Shulman did an excellent paper a few years back about how bureaucracies get weighed down by these online petitions and form e-mail letters. Each signature and letter must printed out on real paper, even the global warming letters. It uses up enormous resources to sort, categorize, and read all these letters and petitions, which they are required to do by law. And they are essentially meaningless, because they were generated and signed too effortlessly. 

This isn't to say that all online petitions are crap. The good ones are backed by interest groups with a particular expertise on a subject. They direct these petitions to the correct political officials or bureaucracies. They have other tools at their disposal besides cheap online petition signatures. Their petitions provide real facts on scientific or policy matters, so that the signatories learn something from the process.

Meanwhile, I'm going back to the petition website to create my own an online petition. I'm going to demand that this website actually provide links to proper content and are aimed at changing particular policies or practices.

(Slightly different version at Everyday Politics.)

18 thoughts on “Online Petitions

  1. During the Gray Davis recall campaign in California, my blood pressure stayed high for months as these paid drones — paid minimum wage, as I discovered, and many not knowing anything about the petition or even the language it was written in — prowled the neighborhoods, streets, and transit systems demanding signatures.
    I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with paying people to circulate petitions. The whole point of that sort of grass-roots democracy is that the grass roots be agitated enough to take action; laziness is a key element in the checks and balances.

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  2. Would you have similar problems with paid (or online) voter registration drives, where people can sign up to vote without taking even the minimal effort to seek out a form, or indicating any knowledge of the relevant issues/ candidates?

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  3. Good question, Ragtime. No, I think that voter registration should be as easy as possible. I don’t think that voters gained anything from the old system. The old system never required political knowledge and one didn’t gain anything from being jerked around from bureaucracy. It benefited the elite who had the fortitude to locate the right office and get the right form.
    I do think that online petitions can be beneficial, if they are done in the right way. Pictures of sad polars bears is the wrong way.

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  4. I had a confrontation with Dan Rather (real name: Kenneth). He wouldn’t give me the frequency.

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  5. I agree with Laura about voter registration — mostly ’cause I think there’s no requirement to be informed in order to vote. If you want to pick your presidential candidate based on the number of letters in their name, you’re allowed to, and I don’t want to impose any barriers on your being able to do so. It’s a power and a right. I also think felons should be able to vote, and that ex-felons certainly should be allowed to vote.
    In order to have your comments on substantive law taken seriously though, you should try to be informed, even if your information is purely ideological. Now, people should still be able to make all the online petitions they want. I’m just not going to take them very seriously (and I almost never sign them).

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  6. I enjoyed this post with the exception of the unnecessary pot shot at Ms. Jolie. I am not sure why you decided to add that statement or what you think it adds to your post.
    I have watched/seen Ms. Jolie speak at the Joint Council on International Relations via youtube videos in regards to her work with refugees in Africa and Pakistan and her belief that trials are necessary in order for people to be able to move forward after the atrocities they have faced. She was eloquent, passionate and obviously very well respected by others attending. She was the first to admit that her almost 10 years of volunteering for the UN has made her realize how little she knew/knows and how much work there is out there to be done.
    I don’t understand why then you would use her as an example of someone who is all about “Politics Lite”. She donates 1/3 of her income to charitable giving, has made a real commitment to the causes she believes in and has gained the respect of a very large, very influential group of people who are considered experts in the field.
    There are many ways to show the difference between Politics Lite and “serious” politics without impugning an individual’s reputation or actions without merit. Perhaps pointing out those who bought/bought into Gap’s RED campaign would have been a more accurate depictment of those who traffic in political lite.
    Thank you for sharing your memories of your father’s activism. It is clear that he was incredibly passionate and inspired those who met him to learn more about the causes he championed.

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  7. Oh, and Laura. I thought you might find this passage from “Adam Canfield of the Slash” amusing (by Michael Winerip). The setting is that the Slash, a middle school newspaper has exposed a plan to get rid of street front basketball hoops using excessive interpretations of the zoning codes in the town. A little girl is collecting petition signatures (and has just arrived at Adam’s house). Here’s her introduction to getting the signatures:
    “A tewwible think is happening,” said the little girl. “Bad people want to take away the little childwen’s basketball hoops. What are they cwazy? do they want us all to get hooked on dwugs? You should wead this,” She handed Adam a copy of Adam’s story from the slash.
    [Adam wrote the article, so his family “gets it.”]
    But, the girl goes on. “Do they want us all to get hooked on dwugs?” said the little girl. “Are they trying to make the little childwen misweble? How many childwen have to die to make this cwaziness stop?”
    [mother interprets and says “Kitty, calm down,” “You’re going to wear yourself out. This is just our fourth street.”]
    “As the mother led her down the block, Adam could hear the little girl chanting, “No justice, no peace, save the childwen. No justice, no peace, save the childwen.””
    [So, were you that little girl, or a bit less aggressive? :-)]
    bj
    BTW, it’s a good book.

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  8. Hmmm. OK, Sasha. When I wrote that post in my head, that sentence read, “these websites are for people who have been inspired by Angelina Jolie, rather than Saul Alinsky”. Would that be more accurate?

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  9. Part of Jolie’s job is dealing with the pot-shots. It’s the price one pays for celebrity. Remember when Pottery Barn objected to Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule” (’cause, in fact, they don’t have a policy that if you break it you own it.) But,it’s still the pottery barn rule, ’cause it just doesn’t work to call it the “little privately owned frou frou antique store rule.”

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  10. bj,
    Why not just say, “you broke it, you bought it”? That expression was in circulation way before Pottery Barn was ever a national name and, so attaching “Pottery Barn” to it doesn’t add anything. If anything, tacking “Pottery Barn” on creates a subliminal message: “You broke it, you bought it [and you’re going to pay far more than it’s objectively worth].”

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  11. For the voter registration issue, we had a ton of people paid to register voters here for the 2008 primary and general elections. I’d get asked nearly daily. Then, ACORN gets heat for sending in a bunch of bad registrations and then they get in more trouble because it is illegal in PA to pay piece-work rates for registrtion drives (you can pay them, but not per signature). Which is kind of funny because there are people who have argued that Ralph Nader’s ballot petitions were so bad that he should have to pay the costs associated with getting him tossed off the ballot, but ACORN’s registration drive was not bad enough to be sanctioned over it’s raft of faked signatures and bad addresses. (As there are two different sets of laws, I’m guessing none of the lawyers worry about the contradiction. It just looks funny.)

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  12. I don’t think Ms. Jolie needs to be defended by me per se…I am sure she is well aware of the negative side of celebrity and seems to be living quite well regardless. Being beautiful, having as many children as she seems to want, having a gorgeous partner and spending a large amount of her time volunteering for the UN as an advocate for women and children seems to be quite fulfilling. In addition, of course, to her successful film career which has given her money and acclaim (Oscar!).
    More to the point I was trying to make, your sentence reminded me of the NY Times review of a Broadway play in which Elizabeth Berkeley starred. The review had almost nothing to do with her performance in that play, or her many years as a theatre actor but brought up yet again her performance in the movie “Showgirls”. A movie that had been released over 10 years before this review. Ms. Berkley had received mostly positive reviews regarding this performance…except from this reviewer who seemed more more interested in a performance that happened so very long ago. An embarrassing performance which really had nothing to do with the play she was in, the review that should have been written, etc. It was the type of remark that attempts to score some sort of derogatory point on someone for seemingly no point except…sexism?, misogyny? thoughtlessness? I really don’t know why those kinds of throw off negative comments are made. Or why they seem to happen when discussing women more often than discussing men. Ms. Berkeley’s Op Ed in response was magnificent in pointing out the utter ridiculousness of the reviewer speaking for such a long time about her Showgirls moment. And the clear feminist issues inherent in these toss away statements.
    It bothers me to see that you choose to compare/contrast a woman who seems to be followed not by a plethora of people inspired by her (I haven’t seen any great uprising of support to the women & children in Africa or Pakistan due to her work there – perhaps you have seen/read/heard of something I missed?) but who is often mocked and dismissed as a dilettante by those who seem to know actually very little about what she is involved in or what she supports to a man who represents to you Serious Politics. A woman who seems to be judged more for her choices as a mother and romantic partner(s) than for her advocacy/volunteer work.
    I wonder why Angelina Jolie came to mind as someone who would inspire Politics Lite behavior in others as opposed to George Clooney. Or Bono. Or Will.i.am? Or Brad Pitt. Or the Live Aid concerts of the late eighties. Or the Red Cross celebrities after 9/11. Or the Gap campaign I already alluded too. All of whom have arguably had more positive press in general regarding their charitable organizations and have most probably raised more money (raising money for woman and children of color in war torn and disaster torn African and Asian countries is usually a harder sell) than Ms. Jolie. Why did you choose to compare Serious Politics (defined by a male in your example) to a female celebrity as opposed to the many many male celebrities who could have been used?
    Of any of those examples, Ms. Jolie is one of the few who has been doing most of her work behind the scenes, working with the actual people who are in need of assistance and has the least positive press and support. I would be very surprised to hear that she has at all a large following of Political Lite people busting their ass or being inspired by her – as what she does isn’t very glamorous, isn’t very easy, and doesn’t lead to a happy ending in any reliable time table. She hasn’t given people a newsboy hat to purchase, a shirt to wear or a concert album to listen to while being comforted by the listener/wearers conscience knowing they have helped support “goodness”. She travels to refugee camps, she speaks with women and children to find our their needs. She works with field officers to try to raise awareness and bring in necessary supplies.
    Ms. Jolie (as well as Ms. Berkeley) and other women seem to followed by their youthful reputations in ways that have no corollary amongst the men I listed. George Clooney’s cameo role in The Facts Of Life isn’t brought up as a seminal moment of his work, career or output – his movies with respected director Soderbergh and his advocacy work is most often mentioned. Bono’s eighties mullet isn’t constantly brought up as a flight of silliness to have to live down. Brad Pitt – well, I think most of us just smile when we think of Brad. And think of his Thelma and Louise days.
    I brought up my point because this isn’t about Ms. Jolie in particular. This is about the fact that too many people find it reasonable to justify comments about women like the one you made in your post by saying that this is the price of celebrity, or that it wasn’t quite meant the way it was written – even thought I cannot think of a single instance when stuff like this is written about men. It only seems to happen with women. And I think that is something we should all think about when we try to produce facile reasoning about why this isn’t an issue about feminism, or sexism, or any other kind of patriarchal reason why so many seem to think that this is ok to say. About women mostly.

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  13. Good question, Ragtime. No, I think that voter registration should be as easy as possible.
    But then you have the same problem. The candidate wins, but can’t really claim a mandate for his policies. Bush tried in 2004 with Social Security after winning on a “terrorists are bad and Democrats hate America” platform, and Obama is trying now with Climate Change and Health Care after winning on a “Bush Sucks, and um, also Hope” platform. Then, they get elected and practically have to start campaigning all over again for their substantive agendas.
    The same way that politicians don’t take seriously an Online Petition featuring sad polar bears, Republican Congressmen in districts that Obama won aren’t taking seriously an election result featuring Obama’s flag pin and Palin’s wardrobe.

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  14. Hi Sasha, I get what you mean my Angelia Jolie and certainly understand your perspective on demeaning women. When I read the entry, I took the Jolie reference as a slightly humorous aside, much like one might make about George Clooney or Richard Gere.
    I can’t imagine that laura intended for it to be a rejection of a gendered sort that you are highlighting in the Elizabeth Berkeley anecdote.

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  15. My daughter’s most intense obsession is black permanent markers. Not sharpies. But, Marks-a-lot brand.

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  16. To Ragtime,
    The problem with the voter registration issue is that, in terms of public policy, restrictions on people voting for the right reasons are historically and practically problematic. It may defy reason that people who use the “wrong” criteria should be able to have their votes counted equally along with people who use the “right” criteria, but even more problematic would be to try to legislate what the “wrong” and “right” criteria might be.
    Things like poll taxes (to exclude the poor) and political sophistication exams (used to exclude African Americans in the South) offer quite sobering tales about how innocuously (although actually, the legislation was never innocuous) framed laws could be used to deny voting rights on the basis of race or economic class.
    The problem of voting right restrictions is much more pernicious than the concern of how to interpret a mandate, which is a fairly subjective issue in the first place.
    If you look at the American system compared to that of other democracies, you might be surprised to know that our registration and voting systems are some of the most restrictive in the world. Most countries automatically register their citizens, rather than requiring that they actively register themselves. In requiring citizens to actively register (and allowing states to make their own rules on how that works), the U.S. sets up a check against the politically apathetic by making it more difficult for them to vote altogether, since they are less likely to register.
    And then there are the Australians, who make voting compulsory for all citizens, lest they pay a fine. Who knows what criteria THOSE voters use? And how those mandates are interpreted?

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  17. Saul Alinsky was an old-school 60s activist who did traditional organizing and Angelina Jolie represents a modern style of activism. That’s all I meant by it. Actually, it’s a half-way complement to Jolie, since she exemplifies it more than Clooney or others. That’s all I meant by that line.

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  18. Saul Alinsky did traditional organizing only because he looked so bad in tight shorts and a tank top.

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