Do you remember how funny it was when a jokester at the White House’s “We the People” site got more than 34,000 people to sign a petition asking the administration to build a Death Star? And did you chuckle when you saw the administration’s lighthearted and good-natured response? Hah hah hah. But wait. Not long after the White House announced that building a Death Star would be cost-prohibitive, it also announced—to far less fanfare—it was raising the signature threshold to warrant an official response from 25,000 to 100,000. This by itself is old news, but it’s important to look at the effect it’s having a few months later.
I had been unaware of the increase in the threshold until a friend shared on Facebook a petition from his niece. Dr. Nolle Hunter is seeking the return of her young daughter, who was kidnapped by her father and taken to Mali in 2011. Hunter created a petition asking President Obama to have the State Department work to have Muna returned, to have the Justice Department initiate charges against Muna's father, and to make aid to Mali conditional on Muna’s return. However lofty those goals might sound, just getting to 100,000 signatures might be the biggest hurdle of them all. Right now, Hunter’s petition has just more than 1,100 signatures. And she has only until March 27 to get to 100,000.
I’ve emailed a bit with Dr. Hunter to learn more about her story. She has been working diligently—and patiently—with the State Deparment’s Office of Children's Issues. But she has a master’s degree in public administration, and she says her background helps her deal with the slow pace of the bureaucracy. And she has high praise for Sen. Mitch McConnell and her congressional representative, Hal Rogers of Kentucky. Both of them have sent letters to Mali on Hunter’s behalf. “Both McConnell’s and Rogers’ office return calls and emails to me AND to the many supporters who have called or emailed them to bring Muna home. I don’t have anything but good things to say about them both.”
But, as she says, “What if I didn't know how to go about this process, or didn't know who to call? Many parents are in that boat. Having said all of that, it still should not have taken this long to return my daughter from a nation where we supposedly have such good diplomatic relations, and a nation that was just bombed for weeks by the French in an attempt to drive back Al-Qaida!”
A We the People petition seems like a great outlet, not only for Hunter and other parents in a similar situation, but for anyone whose cause could benefit from the attention that a little social media promotion can bring (a graduate student from Texas, imprisoned in Iran, dissident bloggers in Cuba). But if the possibility of a real response from the government is so slight, doesn’t that diminish the viral-ness of it all? Say you see a petition on Facebook or Twitter and you’re curious. Are you more likely to sign that petition if you see that the sponsor is closing in on a goal? Seems likely.
Hunter was not deterred by the high signature threshold and says that the petition is “accomplishing exactly what I wanted it to. … Its a success, and somehow in my heart, I believe the administration— (maybe not the president directly) already know about this.”
But it shouldn’t be so hard for a petition to be an actual success, to achieve its goal of a response from the White House. Right now there are only 175 active petitions on the We the People site. Of the top 20 most popular petitions, only three have topped the new threshold: one asking the administration to recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group (is there any organization in this country more unifying than the WBC?), one asking Congress to respond to the death of Russian Alexander Dolmatov in a Dutch prison, and one about stopping CISPA.
There are earnest petitioners who have no hope of having a response that meets their satisfaction and unserious petitioners who are looking for attention (Really? Changing the national anthem to R. Kelly’s “Ignition”?) And there are a few despicable petitions, like the ones trying to call attention to “white genocide.” But even a petition to repeal Obamacare, which is something that millions of Americans favor, has garnered only 60,000 or so signatures.
Raising the threshold so steeply and so suddenly means that many people with legitimate concerns will not have their voices heard. And it sends the message that maybe the White House doesn’t really want to be bothered with the problems of the people. It shouldn’t be that hard for the White House to have a strategy that accommodates the occasional silliness. Let President Obama address the serious petitions. And for the ones that can’t be taken seriously, let them be handled by someone who can’t be taken seriously himself. Joe Biden needs something to keep busy, after all.