Last week, hundreds of people said they'd signed a widely shared petition on the White House's “We the People” site asking President Trump to preserve funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But you wouldn't have known it by looking at the site. As the Independent wrote last week, many people took to social media to complain that the counter on that particular petition was heavily undercounting signatures: Despite hundreds of people saying they'd signed, the counter was stuck at 27 signatures. That raised questions about whether the Trump administration was discontinuing or tampering with the site. (The site lets anyone submit a petition and promises a White House response if it gathers 100,000 signatures in 30 days.)
While the NEA and NEH petition page now says it has gathered more than 30,000 signatures, others have voiced similar concerns about a number of other petitions that seem frozen at one signature — preventing them from being listed on the site, which requires a petition to gather at least 150 signatures before it is publicly searchable.
With the issue affecting so many petitions that are critical of the president, people suspected there was a conspiracy afoot. But the White House said that your voices are being heard. White House spokesman Michael Short said in an email that the “signatures are being captured.” Another person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly, also confirmed that the signatures are being counted but said that a technical glitch has kept them from being displayed properly.
While skeptics may question those statements, even those who started the site during the previous administration don't think there's anything sinister about the counter problems.
Tom Cochran, who served as White House digital operations manager under President Barack Obama, told Quartz that he thinks that signatures are being counted but that the site isn't displaying the right numbers because it is having trouble keeping up with all the activity.
“Every signature is being recorded, but they’re just not live,” he told Quartz. “Every time you hit the sign button, it goes to a central register. And because there’s such a high volume of signatures, higher than they’ve ever seen before, it’s overwhelming the register.” Cochran confirmed that statement to The Washington Post but declined to comment further.
Another former Obama administration official previously involved with “We The People,” Macon Phillips, gave a similar assessment to BuzzFeed. The system, he said, wouldn't really allow for counter manipulation. “It seems like more of a caching issue,” he told BuzzFeed. “I think the team there is still trying to get their heads around how it works.”
So, it seems that individuals can continue to sign petitions and have at least some assurance that their signatures will be noted and logged with the White House — even if the site doesn't show it.
There is still the question of how effective these petitions are. This is issue stretches back to its founding in the Obama administration. A recent study from the Pew Research Center looked at the petition site's five-year history and concluded that petitions have had “limited legislative impact.” Of the 4,799 petitions submitted to the White House through the site, 268 gathered enough support to prompt responses from the White House. And just three have shown any direct impact on policy: one that petitioned for people to be able to unlock their cellphones; one credited with changing Obama's mind about laws banning “conversion therapy efforts on minors in the LGBTQ+ community”; and a petition to grant baseball great Yogi Berra the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Beyond that, it is difficult to calculate the impact of the site, as not all the inner workings of the White House are made public,” the study said, though it did acknowledge that the petitions may have helped bring additional media attention and awareness to issues.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.