Often forgotten among our First Amendment rights are our rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances. And while the right, in principle, refers to an individual, well as a group voicing their grievances to both elected and executive government officials, it is the word “petition” that we focus on here. With the rise of internet advocacy came the online petition. And while the Urban legends site Snopes.com calls online petitions a waste of time, there are clearly exceptions.
Online petitions, when incorporated into a well thought out, strategic advocacy campaign, can be extremely effective at alerting elected officials about the will of their constituents. Whether they impact the vote of a lawmaker, however, depends on a variety of factors. First, does the lawmaker see him or herself as a delegate or a trustee of their constituents? Second, are their counter petitions carrying more signatures? Third, does the lawmaker have a deeply held preference for the vote based on ideology or other principled consideration?
There are a growing number of free petition sites online. One of the earliest and most useful for advocacy ins Care2.com’s ThePetitionSite.com. In addition to allowing free petitions, The Petition Site will recruit signatures from among Care2’s 19 million members. These members are highly active progressive activists and can be recruited via a petition to sign up for your own email list for a CPA (cost per acquisition) of approximately $1.50 per validated email address.
More recently to this petition business is Change.org. Following a similar business model to Care2, Change.org allows free petitions and CPA petitions, albeit to a smaller pool of about 5 million progressive activists. Within the past year, MoveOn.org launced its SignOn.org petition site with a slightly different model. Instead of acquiring email addresses, SignOn allows you to use their system to reconnect with people signing your petition through their protected messaging system.
Unlike Care2 and Change, SignOn petitions are always free. In order to make this work for MoveOn, the email addresses never leave their control and new emails acquired via the petition are shared with MoveOn.
Breaking with this third party approach to petitions, the White House has followed the footsteps of 10 Downing Street in the UK to offer its own petition tool (mentioned in my last blog post).Called We the People, this petition only targets the White House, where the others can target Congress, the White House or any other target with an email address.
Like other forms of social advocacy, these tools provide a public record of signatures that can be shared with the media in order to promote the success of the petition. This public accountability is a key component of petition campaigns, specifically, and social advocacy campaigns, generally.