The White House Petition Site Is a Joke (and Also the Future of Democracy)

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Want to troll your federal government? It just got a lot more difficult.

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Whitehouse.gov

First of all, it should be said: Hahahahahahahaha. The White House -- the seat of federal power in the United States, the infrastructure behind the leader of the free world, the place so powerful and notable that even Aaron Sorkin wrote about it -- has been vanquished by a Death Star

Well, pretty much. In September 2011, the White House launched "We the People," an online initiative designed to bring a digital spin to citizens' right to petition the government. The site allowed citizens to start and spread petitions, promising that any entreaties that received more than 5,000 signatures would receive consideration -- in the form of an "official response" -- from the White House. And the site enjoyed steady growth -- so much so that, in October 2011, the White House upped the number of signatures required to receive an official response from 5,000 to 25,000. In late 2012, however, the site -- driven in part by petitions to allow a selection of states to secede from the Union and to, yep, construct an $850,000,000,000,000,000, Star Wars-style Death Star -- saw a surge. Not only in terms of the number of users it registered (2.4 million) and signatures it collected (4.9 million), but also in terms of the number of requests it generated. The last two months of 2012, apparently, saw some 73,000 new petitions.

So, late yesterday, the White House admitted simultaneous victory and defeat for its "We the People" initiative, announcing that the new signature threshold will be, going forward, a whopping 100,000. The window for signature-gathering won't change: To garner a White House response, a petition needs to get that six-digit support within just 30 days. 

You could read the changing of the threshold as the White House frames it: "a good problem to have," the result of the fact that the petition site's popularity "exceeded our wildest expectations," an action designed by busy people doing important things "to ensure we're able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve." Or you could read the change more like New York magazine does: as the White House acknowledging that its petition site "has become ridiculous."

But you also don't have to choose, because both things are true. "We the People," on the one hand -- by way of the petitions that have populated it -- is totally, ridiculously absurd. There was the Death Star request. And the secession movement. And the petition to deport British-born CNN host Piers Morgan. And the entreaty to designate and protect the Sasquatch as an indigenous species. And the appeal to nationalize the Twinkie. The "We the People" site has received, the White House says, 141,310 petitions over the course of its young existence. And many of those have been, effectively, hoaxes -- elaborate yet low-investment jokes played by citizens rising up, coming together, and exercising their constitutional right to troll. 

But the petitions weren't all like that: Though, unsurprisingly, it was the Death Stars and Bigfoots that ended up with the bulk of attention to the site and its service, "We the People" has also fielded an urgently legitimate petition to legally recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group -- a request that, since its mid-December creation, has received more than 321,000 signatures. The Administration responded, in detail, to a petition to "VETO the SOPA bill and any other future bills that threaten to diminish the free flow of information." It has made moves to improve the regulation and oversight of commercial breeders in response to a petition to crack down on puppy mills. And late last week, in a petition reply that compensated for its lack of real-world policy implications with a broader policy of Nerdy Delightfulness, the White House issued a comically detailed, Star Wars reference-laden response to the Death Star petition. (Official title: "This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For.")

The Administration has also gotten flak, though -- for selective answering and long response times (the Westboro petition, having long passed its "merits a response" threshold, has yet to receive a White House reply), for boilerplate answers (the petition to reduce gun violence), for evasive replies (the petition to legalize marijuana). As Harvard's JH Snider argued in 2011, "We the People" will likely have "a short shelf life" for the same reason so many political initiatives have short shelf lives: because the interests of the public and elected officials are misaligned. "The public," Snider noted, "is inclined to ask politicians to take controversial stands that politicians have no rational self-interest in taking."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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