The Petition Craze

Petitions 2Back when I was but a youngster, I used to hang out in the congressional offices of several Congresscritters who seemed excited at the prospect of a teenager who actually liked the process of politics and didn’t ignore it and dismiss it as unimportant. That was in the early 1970s, when I was 13-14 and I would go down there every week or two for a few hours and just do odd jobs for no pay and pick their brains. The same was true when I was 17 and I worked on Jimmy Carter’s Maryland Primary campaign. I did some volunteer work, but mostly, I listened and learned.

Fast forward to the 2000s, when I worked for a couple of law firms that did some lobbying. I would assist some attorneys in advising Congresscritters on certain issues, including immigration, asylum, the death penalty, global warming and many other issues.

In all of those cases, I learned a few very valuable lessons:

  1. There is no point to calling, writing or emailing a member of Congress who doesn’t represent you. In about 98 percent of such cases, their staff is instructed to disregard your call, letter or email and often delete it without reading it. These days that may be trickier regarding phone calls because people keep their cell phone numbers even when they move, so area codes don’t always represent where they live, but in most cases, if your area code, zip code or IP falls outside of their district, they will not even read it. Why would they? Time is money and they have a budget to meet and they don’t represent the entire country, just the people in their district.
  2. Politicians and their professional staffs are very attuned to organized campaigns and they tend to reject them at least 95 percent of the time, unless they have a direct bearing on actions that matter within their district/state. Like most people, they will become very offended and defensive when someone targets them in any way, and they are more likely to do the opposite of whatever the organized campaign asks.
  3. Petitions of almost all kinds go straight in the circular file. Petitions are a waste of time at least 99.9 percent of the time and, again, their staff is almost always ordered to ignore them. The exception might be a petition made up of only registered voters in their district/state, whose identities have been verified.

Let’s concentrate on that last one for a moment.

Like you, I get a lot of email from progressive organizations, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to note that around half of them, and it may be a lot more than that, involve asking me to sign my name to something. This week, I have received at least a half-dozen emails asking me to sign a petition to stop Republican obstruction on the Supreme Court. I wish I was joking. Scalia just died Saturday, the Senate is in recess (although not technically, since they never actually go on recess, so as not to allow a recess appointment), Obama hasn’t chosen a nominee yet and the Senate hasn’t blocked a vote or even a hearing as yet. Yet, I’m being asked repeatedly to sign my name to a petition that no one will ever read to solve a problem that hasn’t actually happened yet.

Who falls for this? Every one of these “petitions” is accompanied by a plea for cash, of course. There is nothing wrong with trying to get paid for what you do, but please don’t think you are “being an activist” by signing a petition online. Especially online. The exception is the online petitions at the White House “We the People” site, but even then, there is no point to signing anything that isn’t somewhat serious. Some of the petitions are downright loony.

Petitions 1That doesn’t mean you don’t sign any petitions, ever, at all. If someone is standing there in front of your local supermarket with a pen and a sheet of paper and asks if you’re a registered voter, those may be legitimate and you should hear them out. However, if you imagine “signing” your name or submitting an email for a petition about something you feel passionate about and feel like you’re actually doing something worthwhile, you should know that the organization you gave your email address to will just sell it and no petition will ever be seen by anyone powerful. Even when they promise to “hand-deliver,” that is meaningless because I assure you, they will hand-deliver the petition then leave and the staff will run it through the shredder. There may be an exception or two, but one vote almost never matters. That’s why I always tell you to vote for and support ALL Democrats. Elizabeth Warren can’t be a great Senator without a lot of support, and the future Senator Alan Grayson can’t do it without being part of a 60-vote majority, no matter how much we love him.

If you sign something demanding that the GOP stop obstructing on a Supreme Court nomination that hasn’t even been made yet, and you imagine Republicans staring at the sheer numbers and cowering in the corner, I would remind you that we’re talking about the current Republican Party here. They refused to pass a universal background check law when it was clear that 90% of us supported it. Hell, the first Iraq War protests drew upwards of a half million people, who blocked the streets and passed by the White House and the Capitol Building, and it provided no deterrent. An online petition won’t deter anyone.

The only petition you need to worry about is your ballot. Elect every Democrat you can and a lot of the things you have to craft petitions for will magically disappear. Make sure Republicans lose.

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One comment

  1. Good points, Milt, and honestly I’m always astonished that people can’t think of it. I recently asked a Bernie supporter why he thought Congress would support his agenda. His answer was “The people will march on Washington.” I told him “That won’t work. There are protests every day in DC, and mass rallies several times a year.” He responded that “well, they’ll see all these people, and if they want to be reelected, they’ll pay attention!” I had to break it to him, pretty much covering the points you just made. Basic civics, really, but apparently it’s not covered in schools these days. Like you, I ignore petition requests (except the White House one), and I think I’ve managed to get off most of the mailing lists that flooded me with “action alerts.” Finally.

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