We the People’s diminishing voice in government

The Obama Administration has recently raised the number of signatures for a petition to warrant a response from 25,000 to 100,000 on the online site, We the People.

This is a mistake on the part of the administration.

A post on the White House blog asserts that many petitions have been gaining signatures so quickly and that this change will ensure that “the most popular ideas” get “the time they deserve.”

Even so, raising the signature threshold is detrimental as it dilutes the power of petitions and discourages civic engagement.

After submitting a petition, you have just 30 days to obtain 100,000 online signatures. In a country where millions of users browse the web daily, this doesn’t seem too daunting of a task. So far, the administration has posted only 97 responses to petitions.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of petitions have failed to meet the lower threshold of 25,000 — in light of that, it’s easy to doubt that petitions will be able to gain the required number of signatures.

Potentially influential and effective petitions, such as one to have the Federal Housing Finance Agency eliminate a cut-off date for the Home Affordable Refinance Program, will get buried because they can’t acquire the attention or support of 100,000 users.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to petition, along with the rights to free speech and assembly. When the Obama Administration launched the “We the People” program, it intended to simplify the petition process to the executive branch for citizens.

By raising the threshold, however, the Obama Administration has taken a step backward and made it more difficult for citizens to connect with and get a response from their government.

People complain that the responses are too general and that the petitions lead nowhere. This is mostly correct.

But petitions have rarely been catalysts. Their purpose often lies in making the government aware of the opinions and concerns of citizens and encouraging citizens to become more active in government.

The “We the People” program enables the administration to acknowledge citizens’ concerns. Some petitions, like one to release the recipes for the beer brewed in the White House, have gained very relevant responses (the White House kitchen ended up releasing two of these recipes, to great joy from beer enthusiasts).

Others, such as recent petitions regarding gun violence, gained a general response from the administration. They even responded to a petition to build the Death Star.

Even if the responses are not direct and immediate action, they at least demonstrate that the petitioners’ opinions and concerns have been considered and addressed.

At the very least, it gives citizens a tool with which they can directly connect to their government. It encourages citizens to be proactive and to further research any petitions they see online. It utilizes modern technology to promote civic engagement.

I fail to comprehend how that could be anything but beneficial.

Raising the threshold for signatures will only diminish the successes of the program. It is true that “We the People” falls short in several ways, but its failings are overshadowed by its innovation and spirit.

Instead of making it more difficult, the administration should focus on making it easier for citizens to petition and connect with their government.

 

Reach the columnist at jelanza@asu.edu or follow her at @jentrylanza

 

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