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The Politics of Online Petitioning As We Head Toward 2016


By Randy Paynter

When you think of online petitions, protecting the oceans from oil exploration and wolves from hunters might come to mind.

Political parties, candidates and related advocacy groups are also using petitions as a way to build awareness for their platforms and reach prospective voters. A quick online search of current and former political petitions results in a growing number of examples.

There’s Ben Cohen, the Ben & Jerry’s co-founder who runs a group aiming to overturn Citizens United and garnered support for his petition to get big money out of politics before the 2016 election. No Labels, the Republican/Democrat hybrid group, is collecting signatures on a petition telling Congress we need a National Strategic Agenda. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is sponsoring a petition asking others to join Hillary Clinton in her campaign to fix the broken campaign finance system. During previous election cycles, supporters of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp used a petition to rally support around her campaign. In Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin used petitions in the same way.

As we head into the early stages of the 2016 election cycle, I think that online petitions will grow in use, joining the candidates’ typical repertoire of advertising, websites and well-oiled stump speeches. The segment is expanding with new entries, including Stand United, a petition site devoted to conservative campaigns.

A few reasons politicians sponsor petitions include:

  • Petitions make constituents aware of where candidates stand in a quick, powerful way.

  • Politicians can use petitions to rally supporters around issues that people deeply care about.

  • Petitions strengthen signers’ resolve. A person who publically states they support an issue is more likely to act in concert with that belief by voting or donating to the candidate in the future.

  • Petition signers spread the word and influence their friends in ways a candidate’s ad could never do, free of media clutter and challenger distortions.

  • Petitions connect on issues and ask for nothing more than an electronic signature in order to make an impact – a welcome opportunity to make an impact beyond the frequent email requests for donations.

  • Petition signers are likely donors. Traditional advertising has relied on look-alike modeling to reach potential voters. Someone signing a petition not only looks like a potential voter, they are actually showing “intent” to support the candidate’s issue – a much more powerful indication of support.

  • Perhaps most importantly, once someone has signed a petition, then the door has been opened to long-term support. It starts with signers receiving email updates on the petition itself. It can continue should signers opt to receive updates from the candidate or organization, the relationship can continue. Further impact comes through Facebook shares, widening a candidate’s reach along with the bonus of valuable third-party endorsements. It is conceivable that one petition can spur a lifetime of dialog and support.

Research of Care2.com petition-signers revealed high levels of civic and political involvement:

  • A full 62 percent have voted

  • 24 percent have addressed or attended a public meeting

  • 26 percent have written an opinion letter to an editor, newspaper or magazine

  • Further, 62 percent have contributed to a nonprofit organization

It’s for supporters like these that Cohen has directed numerous petitions to enlist support for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. A current petition has gathered almost 75,000 signatures in support. Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for LGBT rights, drummed up 24,000 signatures in two days, along with media coverage, with a petition against Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Individual candidates take various tacks: During the 2012 elections, Tammy Baldwin’s team leveraged the public’s anti-Wall Street sentiment with a petition demanding the Justice Department intervene, which netted 5,241 signatures/emails and almost 200 Facebook and Twitter posts and aligned her with a cresting issue. The North Dakota Democratic-NPL (Nonpartisan League) Party simply asked people to sign its petition if they agreed it was time to elect a female senator in support of Heidi Heitkamp. It turns out, 14,906 agreed, and almost 6 percent of them shared on Facebook.

As candidates start to declare in the coming months for the next round of elections, I expect more political marketers will enlist online petitions to build their databases of supporters, market-test ideas and start that all important candidate/constituent dance toward the voting booth.

Image credit: 1) Flickr/Jason McHuff 2) Care2

Randy Paynter is the Founder & CEO of Care2 and helped pioneer online citizen advocacy with the launch of the PetitionSite.com. Randy holds an AB from Harvard University and an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Before starting Care2 and the PetitionSite.com, he co-founded one of the web’s first viral apps, electronic greeting card service eCards.com in 1995.

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