In Praise of Petitions (sort of)

Warning: this will be another one of those long, reflective posts.  If you hate reading people blog about the good ol’ days, skip this one.

I just had a new article come out with Policy & Internet today.  It’s all about e-petitions, the role they play in the tactical repertoire of advocacy groups, and what academics and public intellectuals tend to miss in their criticisms. [/selfpromote]  One of the points I make is that the high-volume, low-quality citizen commentary found in e-petitions  isn’t all that different from the postcards and petitions used in the pre-internet days.  When I worked for the Sierra Student Coalition, we mobilized about 25,000 students to submit “public comments” to the US Forest Service in the first stage of the Clinton Roadless Rule process.  Those public comments were just postcards, signed at tabling events, meetings, or public presentations.  Moving the commenting system online makes them logistically easier, and allows a group to manage the resulting supporter-data more effectively, but besides that its really the same old tactic.

I always feel conflicted when I think about petitions, online or off.  On the one hand, I’d put myself in the same camp as Chris Bowers, Judith Freeman, Adam Green, and Jake Brewer when it comes to e-petitions: they can be used well, but they rarely are.  On the other hand, most of the value I’ve historically seen in petitions comes from the work of collecting them.

My first real organizing effort came in high school, with the Coalition to Save the Belt Woods.  Larry Bohlen, my first mentor, was the leader of that effort.  We were trying to move a bond bill through the MD State Legislature, and the basic tools we were starting out with were handwritten letters and a petition. “Letters are worth a lot more than petition signatures, because they reveal more effort,” he told me.  I focused on the petition anyway.

I used that petition to launch MCSEA (Montgomery County Student Environmental Activists).  First, I talked to my environmental club about the issue, handed out petitions, and asked people to get signatures in classes, lunchrooms, and hallways.  Next, I and a couple friends started “the road show.”  We approached the environmental clubs of 5 other schools, set up times to go talk about the issue, and handed out petitions.  The petition was like swiss army knife for us.  It gave us a clear “Ask” at the end of the environmental club meetings, and (unlike handwritten letters) consisted of those club members taking sustained action over the following weeks.  Most people who agreed to collect petition signatures never brought them back.  But those who did so had demonstrated a level of commitment, and in turn formed the initial MCSEA membership.

All-in-all, we gathered 1,000 petition signatures from 6 high schools in under a month.  And that led to a next step: delivery.  We made 42 photocopies of those petitions (on recycled paper, of course), set up meetings with our state legislators in Annapolis, and walked into those meetings with individual piles of petitions large enough to make a satisfying “THUD” on a desk.  A couple dozen of us made that trip, and a few of us also testified at the committee hearings about the bond bill, discussing why high school students felt so strongly about protecting our last remaining wild forests in the state.  Over the next month, we planned rallies and media events, lobbied legislators, and generally augmented the various tactics Larry was rolling out.  The bill sailed through the legislature and, within months, MCSEA had its first win.

In the following year, I’d use petitions in a similar manner two more times.  A petition would serve as the opening salvo in our student organizing in the anti-InterCounty Connector (ICC… a highway) campaign.  That road show increased MCSEA’s reach to over a dozen schools, and was the first in a very, very long campaign effort that left me with more gray hairs at 18 than I have at 32.  And in the final week of my high school career, Larry Bohlen would memorably call me late on a Monday night and ask if I could organize a petition drive to convince the Governor to veto an anti-clean air bill.  A test of just how big MCSEA had gotten, we managed to generate over 2,500 signatures in under 48 hours, and, stationing a few graduating seniors by their parents’ fax machines, managed to shut down the Governors faxes for 2 days straight while sending them to him, one sheet at a time.  (Yeah. The Governor vetoed the bill. Like I said, the good ol’ days…)

E-petitions are a minor example of the loss of beneficial inefficiencies, which is an overarching theme in the internet’s impact on social systems.  Moving our petitions online makes them more efficient, and let’s you do somewhat-useful things with the data.  But, at least in my experience, the real value of a petition drive was derived directly from those inefficiencies.  “Forward to a friend” requires less effort and commitment than”get 50 classmates to sign this.”  And it’s the effort and commitment that provides a bedrock for the cool things we would later DO with those petitions.

Does that mean groups should avoid e-petitions?  Well, no.  And I’ll note that Larry’s suggestion of focusing on handwritten letters (because they demonstrate greater interest) was well-ignored.  We demonstrated more interest/commitment with a petition drive than with a smaller set of handwritten letters.  The same is doubtless true of e-petititons.  Some high school student somewhere is going to come up with a great, creative use of them, one that I can’t quite envision.  But it does mean that useful high-volume tactics like petitions (online or off) have layers to them, and those layers are easy to overlook unless you’re in the midst of it all.

You can consider this a lengthy footnote to the new article, I suppose.  I draw upon some of my old organizing experience a bit in the article, but as a piece of social science, it’s mostly based on evidence that others can verify through independent observation.  In writing it, I could only dip my toes into the subject of “what makes an effective tactic.”  These experiences constitute the path that drove me to that perspective.

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