14 January 2013

Power to the People?

Obama online petition site: Direct democracy or empty gesture?


We, the People have spoken. We have shouted from the rooftops, typed from our desktops, clicked from our laptops. We have visited the official White House petition website — nearly 3 million of us, to be precise — and exercised our First Amendment right to let our duly (and newly) re-elected President Barack Obama know exactly what we would like the federal government to accomplish, including and in no particular order:

1. Deport television talk host and British national Piers Morgan;

2. Formally acknowledge that space aliens are real, and have walked — probed? — among us;

3. Create a reality television series starring Vice President Joe Biden;

4. Mint a trillion-dollar coin featuring the likeness of Henry Winkler, the actor best known for portraying the The Fonz on “Happy Days”;

5. Begin construction of a real-life Death Star by 2016.

If all of the above sounds remarkably weird — well, except the Mr. Biden show, which sounds long-overdue — that’s because we’re a little weird ourselves. At least when it comes to our various, put-it-in-writing desires for federal action.

Since September of 2011, the Obama administration has invited the public to petition the government at a “We the People” area of the official White House website, promising that when a petition receives enough support — currently 25,000 electronic signatures within a 30-day window — Mr. Obama’s staff will review the request, send it to the appropriate policy experts and issue an official response.

Many of the resulting petitions have been predictable offshoots of longtime national-level policy debates, such as abolishing the Transportation Security Administration, establishing a flat tax and legalizing marijuana.

Others, however, are more eclectic.

Want to let the city of El Paso secede from Texas and become part of New Mexico? There’s a petition for that. Want to give everyone in the country the opportunity to punch anti-tax activist Grover Norquist between the legs, once and only once? There’s a petition for that, too.

Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy, has said that requests posted on the site have had a real and direct impact on administration policymaking, most notably in the case of two petitions concerning online piracy laws.

By contrast, information technology and democracy scholar J.H. Snider said that the site’s civic usefulness has yet to be proven.

“The issues that the administration has really touted and said, ‘We have passed legislation from this’ were all things like student loans and the Newtown shootings, things that were already on the public agenda with Congress introducing bills,” said Mr. Snider, president of the nonprofit public policy institute iSolon.org and a fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “So the question is, did the petition website really make a difference? Or is it just being used to suggest that the administration is open to public participation and that they respond to it because that’s an appealing message?”

Petition power?

Prescient as they were, the Founding Fathers likely did not craft the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of the people to petition Washington for relief so that Americans could one day ask to blow off steam by delivering jabs to Mr. Norquist’s man region.

That said, the founders certainly believed in giving citizens a protected right to directly address their government — a right that dates back in English law at least as far as the Magna Carta in 1215, and largely was denied to American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War.

“Petitioning was very central to early American democracy and Congress,” Mr. Snider said. “It used to be if you got a bunch of signatures, a member of Congress would go to the floor of [the House of Representatives] and give a little speech about your issue. That tradition was lost in the 1820s when the Southern states got tired of abolition petitions and speeches.

“Petitions had been in decline from that point until the advent of the Internet. In the last five years or so, they seem to have come back.”

Indeed, the success of private online petition websites such as change.org — widely credited with forcing Bank of America to scrap a planned $5 monthly debit card fee — helped set the stage for the White House site, which was launched in part to help fulfill Mr. Obama’s campaign promise of a more open and accountable government.

Though the site’s early weeks were marked by technical glitches and outages, it collected over 600,000 signatures in its first 11 days. Over a two-week span, eighty-one petitions reportedly crossed a 5,000-signature threshold that warranted a White House response, including eight petitions requesting marijuana law reform.

On Twitter, Washington-based political organizer and former Sunlight Foundation engagement director Jake Brewer expressed skepticism about the initiative.
Would the White House, he asked, actually listen and respond to requests in a meaningful way? Would the administration have any incentive to take action based on public petitions?

“Guess I’m having a hard time seeing ‘We the People’ as anything more than [government] theater, and I’d like to be wrong,” Mr. Brewer wrote. “We simply don’t need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen and operationalize good ideas.”

Along those lines, a later petition asking that the White House “actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening” garnered 37,167 signatures.

In an official response, Mr. Phillips wrote on the site that one petition posted on the site prompted the Department of Agriculture to develop a new rule ensuring stronger oversight of commercial dog breeders who sell puppies online, while another petition asking the administration to digitize federal records resulted in United States Archivist David Ferrero holding a conference call with petition signers to solicit ideas about the best ways to do so.

Marijuana legalization petitioners and advocates, on the other hand, were disappointed when the administration’s boilerplate response — essentially, “no” — came from Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske, whose Congressinally-authorized job description requires him to oppose all attempts to legalize the use of illicit drugs in any form.

“The White House bundled the responses to the eight marijuana petitions and basically responded the way Obama did on the campaign trail,” Mr. Snider said. “They put all this effort in and didn’t get any new information or a clear response. Of course, that led to yet another petition — one asking for real answers.”

Courting controversy

In the United Kingdom, an online government petition system was temporarily dropped after petitions were used to embarrass Downing Street, most notably when almost 100,000 demanded the resignation of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Similarly, the Obama administration’s site has stoked controversy.

Following Mr. Obama’s reelection, more than 60 petitions to secede from the United States covering all 50 states reportedly gathered nearly 700,000 signatures, with a Texas petition tallying almost 95,000 supporters. In turn, those prompted a petition demanding that everyone who signed a secession petition be deported.

After Mr. Morgan blasted pro-gun guests on his CNN talk show following the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, more than 100,000 people signed a petition asking that he be deported for attacking the Second Amendment — leading to both an explosive on-air confrontation between Mr. Morgan and petition originator and talk radio host Alex Jones and an official White House response.

“Let’s not let arguments over the Constitution’s Second Amendment violate the spirit of its First,” wrote White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on the website. “President Obama believes that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. However, the Constitution not only guarantees an individual right to bear arms, but also enshrines the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.”

A petition to designate the Roman Catholic Church as a hate group for its opposition to gay rights — filed on Christmas Day in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s year-end Vatican address dubbing gay marriage a threat to Western civilization — has drawn over 2,500 signatures, as well as ire (and fund-raising solicitations) from conservative activists and organizations.

Other petitions are more light-hearted.

One asks to have Mr. Obama attend a party thrown by the humor website Fark.com — or, if the president’s schedule doesn’t permit, to at least have a beer with site owner Drew Curtis. Another calls to nationalize the Twinkie industry.

A third demands a new legal system of motorcycle-riding judges who serve as “police, judge, jury and executioner all in one” — in essence, scrapping more than 2,000 years of Western legal tradition and philosophy for jurisprudence ripped from a bad Sylvester Stallone movie.

While frivolous petitions could potentially clog the petition system and render it something of a joke, Mr. Phillips said silly requests are less a problem than the site requiring the 25,000-signature government response threshold to be met within 30 days.

“No other petition site in the world, private or public, has that,” he said. “In theory, the value of a petition is to help the unorganized get organized and get new ideas on the agenda. But the consequence [of the 30-day limit] is that the site doesn’t really work unless you’re very well organized and have a very large email list to start. And organized groups really have less of a need to have a petition.

“There’s always a lot of crazy ones that are very easy to ridicule. But my view of democracy is that it invites a lot of crazy ideas. That’s the whole notion of the First Amendment. The idea is the truth will win out.”

New York-based journalist Jeff Jarvis is less optimistic. On Dec. 27, he filed a petition that the White House “ignore ridiculous, publicity-baiting petitions (like this one) created to get media and tweeters’ attention.”

“Petitioning government is a right as well as an opportunity for citizens to convene and for government to collaborate with them,” the petition reads. “But this facility is becoming farcical. Indeed, this petition itself is merely link-bait, to demonstrate the point. If you’d like media to stop making fake stories out of fake petitions, sign below. Not that it will do a damned bit of good.”

Perhaps Mr. Jarvis is right: As of this week, his petition had collected just 73 signatures.

Read the original story at The Washington Times