By Kati Seeman
When asked what is the best way for regular people to get involved in their government, Anita Dunn, former White House Communications Director during the early Obama administration suggested the federal government’s petition page. Out of all of the ways to be more actively involved in government affairs, that was not the response I was expecting. Throughout my time in DC, the responses have been to vote, to put your own name on the ballot, contact your congressman or woman, etc. No one mentioned the classic First Amendment right to petition until the very last day–which begs the question, how effective is petitioning the government?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The “We the People” website allows for any number of petitions to be started and in order to receive a response from the White House, a petition must be electronically signed by 100,000 people within 30 days.
The website reads, “Most of the time, petitions that are posted through the We The People leave a great impact when it comes to policy-making.”
But does it actually?
The required number of signatures was increased from the initial threshold of 25,000, but with this low number the White House was finding themselves responding to requests for the Death Star (which was denied) and other frivolous things (sorry they won’t deport Justin Bieber). However, sometimes they do respond with the information requested–my favorite being providing the White House beer recipe (Ale to the Chief). In a country with approximately 316.1 million, the required numbers may seem relatively small, but nevertheless the low traffic of the petitions that are serious to some people leaves these voices unheard.
The statistics from the petitions vary, and I know I personally have signed a few goofy ones and a few more serious ones. I don’t actually expect a Miley Cyrus song to replace the “Star Spangled Banner.” I also doubt this website is what the Framers intended when writing the constitution. However, the White House Administration has gotten creative and given the people an outlet for our requests similar to the Drake University Student Senate Student Services Facebook page. Some change may come from these petitions, other times they garner support because they are silly, but it is nice to have the privilege to have a voice in the government at all.