Paul Ryan and Elizabeth Warren will now take your Change.org petitions

October 24, 2013

(Photo by °Simo°)

When a handful of Denver residents came together this year to demand a protected bike lane downtown, their most effective weapon wasn't a visit to city hall or a coordinated telephone campaign. It was an online petition — 834 signatures that inspired two city council members and the Denver Public Works commission, to publicly back their cause.

"Let me know what else I need to do to help this," councilwoman Susan Shepherd wrote back, right on the petition's Web site.

The experience encouraged Change.org, the platform behind the petition, to tie leaders more closely to those they represent. The organization seems serious about recruiting powerful people. On Wednesday, Change.org rolled out an upgrade called Decision Makers, which features profile pages for members of Congress that collect all of their public responses. Yep, that's right: Your elected officials will now be responding directly to your Change.org petitions.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was among the first to sign up.

"Change.org is going to be a big help," said Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee. "It will be a transparent, public forum where we can talk with our constituents."

Others who've pledged to join the program include Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). The push to include lawmakers will soon lead to a broader focus on city officials, governors, business executives and others. One mayor, San Francisco's Ed Lee, has indicated he'll be responding to petitioners, too.

We the People, run by the people

Targets of a Change.org petition currently get notified when they receive a request, and when new signatures are added. But for the most part, it's been a one-way relationship. Now the lines of communication will go both ways, with opportunities for a petition creator to keep rallying regardless of the response. In an interview, Change.org's Jake Brewer said the system works much like the White House's We the People petition site — but with some key differences. For one thing, while decision makers have access to the Change.org platform to log their responses, they don't own it or set the rules. That's a subtle dig at the Obama administration, which has on occasion decided to ignore petitions that crossed the signature threshold required for an official response.

That said, what also sets Change.org's Decision Makers program apart from We the People is that it won't include an explicit signature threshold. Brewer said Change.org simply makes recommendations for where to draw the line depending on a constituency's population size and geography. In other words, it's the civic process that matters — not the outcome.

"We need people's voices to outweigh money in politics," Brewer said.

Do online petitions really matter?

In its basic mechanics, the online petition of 2013 isn't so far removed from its offline cousin. But in the way it's socially regarded, the Internet petition has become a prominent symbol for 21st-century politics. Participating in a movement has never been easier, a fact that has led critics to dismiss the online petition as so much idle slacktivism.

Yes, it's far easier to put your name on a petition than it is to stage a physical sit-in. At the same time, managing a petition — and doing it well — can be deceptively hard. At the national level, it takes 100,000 signatures to warrant a White House reply. (To be fair, the administration has had to raise the threshold over time because hitting the mark grew easier as the service became more popular. But think of it this way: Only a fraction of White House petitions have ever produced a substantial policy change.)

"A hundred signatures on a petition to a school board is going to have much greater impact than — I mean, you're going to need to get 50,000 or 100,000 for a Paul Ryan or a Liz Warren before they even begin to take notice," said Evan Sutton, a spokesperson for the New Organizing Institute, a left-leaning think tank for digital politics.

In short, there's an inverse relationship between the importance of a decision maker and the work it'll take to get them to listen, much less act.

The balance of power

If the bar for results is set so high, then who benefits more? Constituents, who through Change.org now enjoy greater access to elected officials? Or lawmakers, who by volunteering to respond can offer the promise of engagement without really committing themselves to anything?

In that respect, online petitions are really no different from constituent mail or phone calls, which can just as easily be written off. Where they might make a big difference, however, is in the way lawmakers talk to themselves and each other.

On the one hand, petitions can help officials make better choices. They're not only an indication of what voters care about; they're also a clue as to how strongly those voters feel. Dueling petitions give lawmakers insight into which position is more popular — or perhaps simply more organized. On the other hand, petitions also tend to activate the poles of the electorate. Lawmakers who are made to feel more accountable to them may wind up exacerbating partisanship. They might even marshal extreme petitions as evidence for their political agendas.

Still, the fact that petitions tend to be more effective in a local setting suggests that, on balance, when decision makers refer to a petition as a way to back themselves up, the effects will go toward producing results rather than talking points. Incidentally, that's precisely what happened when Denver councilwoman Susan Shepherd signed onto the bike lane proposal. Within a week of Shepherd's announcement, two other public officials had addressed the issue. The petition had become a collaborative policy initiative.

"I think that's when it really starts to distinguish itself from a petition that goes at people," said Brewer. "It actually starts to transition to, 'Okay, the next step of this solution is that other people need to be involved. Let's go involve them.' "

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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