Originally posted in May 2009, but the phenomenon is only increasing.
There are petitions as far as the eye can see these days. At least floating around the community of the “Silent No More”.
Rarely a day goes by that I don’t receive some kind of petition appeal from some online group I belong to or have one forwarded to me via email.
I used to think that petitions were a good idea. After all, some of the very people I thought were actually trying to do something in their endeavors were conducting drives for them.
And, as noted there has been a recent blizzard of one kind or another.
The question: Are petitions effective?
The answer: For the most part, yes, if you are attempting to build a database of contact information.
But one answer is really a question. How many different kinds of petitions have there been throughout history? Answer: Skads, and here we are. (Where is here? As a country, in big trouble!)
The only petitions truly worth doing, aren’t really petitions at all. They are actually called ballot initiatives, those measures that actually get something (or someone, a candidate) put on a ballot. These measure have real teeth.
All of the rest are data gathering, list-building measures, that are very often used to solicit funds later.
The best explanation for the purpose of petitions which I can summon is one of those prize drawings, like at a home show expo. or a grocery store. Businesses don’t do these drawings out of the goodness of their hearts.
And neither do political organizations.
Prize drawings and petitions have the same general purpose: to obtain contact information of interested parties and market to them. Garage door companies at a home show expo. market garage doors, political organizations appeal for funds, push their agenda, and often, put forward candidates.
Often, use of data goes beyond the obvious. Many organizations (as in 501cs) who use petition drives for list building, will automatically add signers’ names to their member data base. The number of members is often quoted by such groups when they are pushing their agenda. In other words, Group X says to Senator Slick , ” We have 10,000 members who are behind us on this bill, or that bill.” A good chunk of those “members” may not necessarily agree with the particular measure Group X is supporting (or opposing).
So, there are clearly some obvious problems with petitions pushed by many groups and organizations.
But what about when genuinely passionate citizens wanting to do a petition drive to either effect some action that is to be taken or send a message to a politician? They are clearly not out to use a list for their own agenda. They really are trying to do something good.
This well-intentioned attempt to have an impact, when it involves turning over a petition to “the opposition”, though, can have some undesirable effects. The opposing group now has an entire list of names at its disposal…to do with it as it sees fit.
In the information age, where amassing databases seems to be the gold standard, petitions potentially do nothing more than provide someone with just that, ready made. Those who understand the problems with petitions should not perpetuate the notion that they are a good idea, and so should avoid encouraging the practice of carrying them out.
In the very rare cases where a petition of a symbolic nature (not a ballot measure) seems important, it’s necessary to proceed with caution. After signatures are collected, the results should be reported to the target, without actually handing over the petitions themselves. An opportunity of supervised examination by the the target or his representatives should be offered. This way, the point can be made, which is a number of citizens are thinking alike on a certain issue, without handing over the contact information.
But again, this should only be done rarely.