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White House raises petition signature threshold to 100K (cnet.com)
184 points by Wingman4l7 on Jan 16, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 129 comments

Petitions are encouraged precisely because they're completely ineffective: a safety valve to allow people to believe they're effecting change when in fact nothing is changing.

If petitions actually worked, they'd be banned.

Apologies in advance. <cranky rant> I am so sick of these democracy doesn't work, the powers that be own us, utterly worthless statements. Worthless is the sense that all they do is justify your own inaction.

So many people take the fact the government doesn't work the way they want it to as evidence that democracy doesn't work. It's a fallacy. What they have trouble understanding is that while we may largely agree that certain problems exist (very few people are in favor of corruption in government) we are incredibly divided on how to solve those problems. My (imperfect) solution would be publicly financed elections and a complete end to campaign contributions. There are many people who feel passionately that campaign contributions == free speech. There isn't enough public support for one solution or another to override the institutional inertia that was built into the constitution by design.

It isn't evidence that democracy doesn't work, it's evidence that your position doesn't have enough support.

But when positions do gain support, things really do change. We've passed constitutional amendments outlawing slavery, giving women the vote, and instituting civil rights. Jesus Christ, do you understand just how hard getting each of those things passed was? Do you understand how many entrenched and powerful interests had to be overcome? Do you understand just how little shouting that democracy doesn't work would have accomplished when faced with moral injustices like that?

If your solution isn't getting passed, work on convincing people that it's the right solution. But don't scream democracy doesn't work when it doesn't get passed because not enough people care about it or agree with it. That actually is democracy working exactly how its supposed to.

Change opinions. Don't rant about how they don't matter. </rant>

It's not an argument that "democracy" doesn't work, it's an argument that the current institutional arrangements aren't really democracy - at least in the sense that the public are actually directly or indirectly governing themselves.

Now, in that sense, let's review exactly how "our"[] government measures up: Individual citizens or groups of citizens have minimal means of influencing their own government through the means of the system - i.e. their representatives. Petitions change nothing, letters to representations to MPs / Congresspeople will receive a form reply and will usually be ignored. Occasionally, when public sentiment doesn't conflict too badly with economic interests, minor tweaks can be made, but that's about it.

Where real change has occurred, it has been done so outside* the institutional parameters of the system. The abolition of slavery took a civil war, and the vote for women and civil rights took massive public protests, illegal acts and (in the case of the suffragettes in the UK) hunger strikes.

So yes, change is possible. But it was never achieved within the confines of a system largely designed and evolved (I contend) to limit public participation, and certainly not by online petitions.

[*] Not everyone is from the US, y'know.

> Not everyone is from the US, y'know.

Incredibly valid point. The angry rant above was hastily written (typos and all) in response to a thread about a change to US public policy. That's my excuse as to why I got it wrong, not an attempt to say that I actually got it right.

> The abolition of slavery took a civil war

The actual passage of the amendment took an act of democracy, however, that still had to overcome mountains of entrenched interests even with the South temporarily out of the picture.

> and the vote for women and civil rights took massive public protests, illegal acts and (in the case of the suffragettes in the UK) hunger strikes.

All of which worked to change public opinion, and pass those bills through the democratic process.

My angry rant was probably less towards your statement than similar ones that I've heard too many times. So I apologize for directing it all at you.

I do strictly disagree that if petitions worked, they'd be banned, however. Petitions are nothing new; the only thing about Obama's site is the ease with which they can be made and the promise of a response. And petitions have worked in the past to effect change either directly, by making those in power aware of people's strongly held petitions, or indirectly, by helping to raise awareness and eventually changing policy by swaying opinion. They do work, if they have enough support.

I know you weren't explicitly making this argument, but many were complaining about how terrible it was that 25,000 signature petitions weren't effecting real change. The US is a nation of over 314,000,000 people. It would be madness if any 25,000 member subset of them could meaningfully coerce the government to action. I'm happy that the bar is being raised to 100,000. I kind of hope it gets raised to something higher. Once you start being able to describe the number in terms of millions it starts carrying real weight. And if people know that that's what they have to shoot for, they'll be more likely to achieve to it.

There's a follow-on effect too, that organizing to get 100k signatures for anything, even the death star petition, creates networks of activists. Some of them stay active afterwards.

Petitions are like polls. And politicians certainly follow polls.

Big ships turn slowly, some patience is required to see the effect of steering. Many changes in society look quick and immediate only when clouded by the shortened perspective of looking tens or hundreds of years back in the history.

> the current institutional arrangements aren't really democracy

Well, not in the Greek sense; the US system was designed to lead to good governance, and to protect personal freedom, neither of which are preserved in a true Democracy.

the US is not a democracy; it is a constitutional republic. Some states have more of a democratic bent to them with initiatives, but you will never see the federal government institute initiatives. As we all know: we do not vote for president, we vote for representatives to vote for president. We also do not make laws: we vote for representatives to make our laws.

While the opposition against SOPA was not a petition, would you not argue that it was a democratic victory?

>But when positions do gain support, things really do change. We've passed constitutional amendments outlawing slavery, giving women the vote, and instituting civil rights. Jesus Christ, do you understand just how hard getting each of those things passed was? Do you understand how many entrenched and powerful interests had to be overcome? Do you understand just how little shouting that democracy doesn't work would have accomplished when faced with moral injustices like that?

People often forget that the fact that the US moves slowly (glacially, I often feel) is frustrating but a GOOD THING. As much as things may be unfortunate right now, they are unfortunate situations we can live with. Far more worrying (to me, anyway) are radical motions that change our country drastically without much debate. Want some examples? Look at post 9/11/01 us government. We passed the patriot act exactly a month and a half later and started two wars.

Yea, I really wish that we could have tax reform, gay marriage, regulated cannabis, etc etc, but not without extensive debate: generally, a conservative (in the rate-of-change sense) country is far more stable than one that is purely held sway to public opinion.

Anyway, petitions really have nothing to do with democracy. It's just a way of people getting their voice heard at the White House, and if you think it's anything more, you're delusional.

I've never really understood this argument, because it assumes that if a bad law is enacted, there is no recourse. In a system where a law could be passed in a few days, wouldn't it also be able to be repealed in a few days? Why not have formally-provisional laws: "try it, see if we like it, throw it out if it didn't work?"


Or, even, (tangent incoming): "try a new law on some [randomly-selected] subset of the nation at a time, record metrics, see whether the experimental population or the control population are doing better" -- A/B test the nation?

That's theoretically what the whole system of state law was for--let each state experiment with its own law--but this has been less and less tenable for generating scientifically-valid data as it has gone on, as the policies states have enacted have caused them to diverge (where instead "good" policies were supposed to be converged to as other states copied them, and "bad" policies eliminated from the "gene pool"), and has caused people who agreed with each policy to move there and people who disagreed to leave. Now doing an "experiment" with a new law in one state will tell you next-to-nothing about how another state would react to it.

Now (or soon), we can efficiently enforce [some forms of] law at the individual level--just mark people in a database saying "this person is legally allowed to smoke marijuana" where a cop can look it up from the console in their car, or "this person will be charged a VAT instead of an income tax" where the credit and EFTPOS networks can look it up and handle it. Law doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. But this is, of course, a silly pipe-dream to apply to a current, entrenched nation. It'll probably be one of those things some charter city could run with, though.

> In a system where a law could be passed in a few days, wouldn't it also be able to be repealed in a few days?

The fear is that it might NOT be repealed in a few days--again, see the patriot act.

But, for a more obvious example, consider a bill that enables martial law.... much more difficult to revert and something that our country might have passed in some of its more heated moments.

But, this is all just speculation. I have no idea if our slow government is actually the reason why it's been so stable as a "democracy"; it could be for myriad other reasons, but it's always made sense to me.

Democracy is only good when the majority supports what you think is right. The moment the majority chooses something you dislike, you're done. And it also doesn't cost anything to the majority, because they only have to waste a little time and vote. If, for example, the majority finds it wrong for gay people to marry, it doesn't cost them anything to keep it illegal. In a purely free society, if one group of people wanted the other group to behave in a certain way, they'd have to find ways to enforce this behavior and that would cost them money. And chances are, gay people would be willing to pay a much higher price to be able to marry, than those who oppose gay marriage.

True freedom is wealth. You believe it's important for people to have this and that? Create value, make money and then spend them buying yourself and others (if you really care) some freedom in the form of education, healthcare or whatever it is you believe in. In a democracy, it works very differently: you ask government to force others to pay for something they may not believe in.

I do not agree with you. You're basically advocating for a form of anarchy in which one makes his own law based on how much money he can pay, however in a true anarchy money would have no place. This complicates issues greatly, because without placing a price-tag on value, then all value you create is relative and selling it is the product of opportunity.

This might not be bad, but because of this, even in anarchy the majority wins. Like, if somebody is gay, what would you have them pay to a big mob of people with torches and pitchforks coming for him, a mob who thinks that gays are an abomination? They might not be using the same currency, his created value may not be worth anything to this mob. And since there is no police, who is going to protect him? Remember that he's in a minority after all.

We take many things for granted, but IMHO democracy makes tolerance possible.

The notion that in an anarchy you would have no police, courts, currency, and all other important things is a product of a lack of imagination. Simply because there is no government, doesn't mean there is no market for the things a government provides. What government had for a long time is a monopoly for many services and it is precisely the reason why it is so hard for people to imagine how a police or defense could exist without a government.

(There are different types of anarchy theories, btw, anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-capitalism being on the two opposite sides of the spectrum).

There is plenty of evidence of what happens without government, effective replacement of government services does not happen. Any argument based on that premise is clearly wrong.

Petitions aren't democracy... they're the definition of special interest.

Petitions are completely ineffective because the citizenry doesn't have enough civic knowledge to ask for the right things.

Take for instance, the top one -- "classify the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group" or the various succession petitions. Is there a federal agency that regulates hate groups? Or classifies who is a hate group and who is not? No. "Hate Group" is a label used by the private NGO sector -- in this case the ADL and SPLC (two non-governmental organizations) maintain lists of hate groups.

Nor does one "incorporate" via the federal government. You incorporate in a state. Stripping Westboro of their tax exempt status should be the lead ask there, and yet those petitions are far less popular than the original? Why? Because it's a more severe ask.

Same with "recount the election" -- the federal government doesn't count votes!

Restrict pay for senators? Seriously, c'mon. We all learned about separation of powers, right?

Petitions do work. What a lobbyist does is petition the government. They're just professional at it, and why we presume that a developer or a plumber or a chicken farmer should be as good of a lobbyist as a professional lobbyist is, is beyond me.

Petitions work. But there's a lot more to getting petitions to affect change than writing some nonsense on a web page and getting a bunch of people to agree with you. Is the expectation that if .01% of the US Population clicks a +1 button on a website then the federal government will change a law? That's a scary proposition.

"Petitions do work. What a lobbyist does is petition the government. They're just professional at it, and why we presume that a developer or a plumber or a chicken farmer should be as good of a lobbyist as a professional lobbyist is, is beyond me."

As much as I think lobbying is a great harm to the system, I can't help but wonder. Would it be effective if there were some sort of "Kickstarter" for lobbying that would allow the mass public participate in a particular lobbying effort with their own $.

Think "We the people" but backed by people who wish to affect change in a particular way with a small "donation". The difference would be that each project would need to be curated by a professional lobbyist to ensure that the details are correct. There could be a threshold set and a particular lobbying effort would only move forward if the threshold is met... Etc, etc, just like Kickstarter. I can't help but think that I'm being too simplistic and overly optimistic. Is there any particular reason this wouldn't work?

They're called PACs :p (different than Super PACs) but it would be interesting if someone took the Kickstarter approach to one. Not sure if they would run into a bunch of legal troubles, because PACs are heavily regulated.

It would probably work.

It wouldn't be as simple as Kickstarter, however:

US public policy already favors the wealthy. (Oligarchy) If the ability to participate in the government was predicated on spending some cash, the system would eventually turn into a Feudal state. This is why poll taxes are outlawed: the government cannot require you to pay to vote.

I agree, but I think that's where we're seeing this particular system go:

The petitions that generate notable interest are increasingly those who are written or championed by people who do have a better-than-baseline grasp on how the government works and what to ask for. The petition to dismiss Swartz's prosecutors is a good example. That's something aimed at the right place, asking for the right thing (to indicate the severity of the citizenry's reaction to the (mis)conduct) and really only getting traction because people who grok the system are promoting that petition in the general interest stories/blogs that initially revealed that misconduct and stoked the citizen response.

Particularly as they raise the threshold for response to reflect the total crowd using the site, I think we'll see the 'qualifying' petitions largely become those that are written/championed by -- for lack of a better term -- special interest groups of citizens.

There are a few people doing effective, targeted activism on tech issues in Silicon Valley (not enough, but a few). If this is your interest, PLEASE contact me. We're rolling out a south bay meetup in a couple weeks, and we could use volunteers around the country as well.

Our group includes people with experience getting real bills past the House. It's a chance to stop debating which strategies make a difference and make a difference.

Maybe that's how their interpreted by many but my personal interpretation is optimistic, but different.

Pretend you're a government official. Every day you have several dozen, if not hundreds or more "requests" made of your office. Fix this. Change that. Ban it too!

It all just blurs together. Eventually you need to filter the noise, "these quacks are all just in it for themselves. I represent the people, I need to know what the people want!" you may say to yourself. How can you tell what the people want. Well, get them to rally together, show that there is support for the clause to "Ban it!"

How could we do that? Perhaps by getting everyone interested to express said interest. What's the threshold of people you're willing to listen to though? 25,000? That seems right. But suddenly, every cause can rally 25,000 people without issue, we're back to the initial issue: too much signal:noise. So we increase the threshold; only the issues that people really care about will make it through.


I never actually believed the petitions were doing much good. The 80% "legalize pot", 5% "admit you have aliens", 5% "no really, legalize pot", and another 4% of equal garbage petitions seemed to ruin the system for everyone.

That's not how these petitions are used by the current administration. Just take a look at the responses to completely rational petitions, like the ones about legalizing pot. Scientifically and medically, marijuana is way way safer and less damaging than alcohol. The response we got is absolutely insane, political bullshit.

The goal of these petitions is to create visibility of some sort of interaction with citizens, to create an illusion of participation, an illusion of a democracy.

Hey, it does fool most people.

Petitions for Ballot Propositions have radically reshaped California's government over the last several decades.


Some (me!) would argue rather poorly. Design by committee taken to its unfortunate logical extreme.

Not rather poorly; disastrously. I don't live in California any longer, but when I did I voted no on every single proposition. Their cumulative negative impact on the possibility of effectively running the state far outweighs the benefit that any one of them might confer.

I would argue otherwise. There is at least one political movement that is currently sweeping through the country that was first passed via a California ballot measure because no one in the legislature would risk the political capital for it.

One of the problems with democratic processes is that they're democratic.

Just because change doesn't come directly from these petitions, it doesn't mean they're worthless. They act as a gauge, not necessarily for our government, but for us, showing the amount of support that exists behind a given idea or movement. It's not precise, and is not the only gauge, but it at least functions as one piece of the puzzle of affecting real change. Your cynicism is wasted here.

> If petitions actually worked, they'd be banned.

Replace "petitions" with voting, protesting, posting comments on Hacker News, or talking with your fellow citizens about political issues. All those are other pieces to the puzzle. Why aren't they banned?

So true! It's also true of "real" voting in "elections". They only put up with that crap because it's so easily manipulated by the media. They'll distract us with "new" policies when they have to, but nothing will ever threaten the ever-expanding stream of money that flows through lobbyists to their employees in government and back out to the lobbyists' clients.

The system won't be "fixed" using tools that exist within the system. It must be hacked, but I don't really see how.

> It must be hacked, but I don't really see how.

figure out a way to efficiently get energy (nuclear? solar? vacuum energy?), so you don't need to rely on any incumbent authority.

Using that energy, design drones to mine resources from the earths' crust, or extract minerals/resources from the sea. THis process must be automated. These drones, using the extracted resources, would reproduce themselves, so that the whole process can be exponential in speed. When a critical number of drones is reached, arm the drones (or create new drones that are armed). Use those drones to take over the world - send an ultimatum. Then, once the whole world has bowed down to you, you become the most benevolent dictator, giving all equality and a good life.

Part of that is an end-of-the-world scenario. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_goo

You do so shortly before nanomachines for eternal life are invented, and your second in command turns out to be a tyrant ruling over humanity for hundreds of years.

> If petitions actually worked, they'd be banned.

That statement is so scary, but most likely true.

the amount of effort you expend to sign a petition is next to nil. Why would anyone expect, then, that signing a petition can affect any sort of change?

Activism comes from expending effort to direct the course of the system (aka, society). Some people, like the rich and powerful, are also "activists" - in the sense that they use their wealth and power to direct the system in such ways as to benefit themselves, while the more altruistic activists direct towards a more ethical/equal world as deemed by their moral systems. In my eyes, they are of the same sort. Problem is that the altruistic activists tend to lack in resources, and thus, they often "lose" to the powerful wealthy ones that act more out of self interest.

> the amount of effort you expend to sign a petition is next to nil. Why would anyone expect, then, that signing a petition can affect any sort of change?

Because government should serve the people and a petition is meant to show government issues the people find important?

Okey, I guess saying that government should serve the people is hard to do with a straight face, but thats how it was suppose to be. Its like saying that the law should be fair and non-discriminating, no matter skin color, sex, or money in the bank. People still expect those two things to be true, even if in truth they are rarely so.

> show government issues the people find important

A tiny percentage of the population finds important.

I suspect that often enough we underestimate opposition to (or mere disinterest in) our ideas and tend to overestimate the importance of our opinions :(

"the amount of effort you expend to sign a petition is next to nil. Why would anyone expect, then, that signing a petition can affect any sort of change?"

I am apparently one of the rare ones who researches any petition, and its impact if made into law, before I sign it.

If everyone did such, I feel that petition systems would be a lot more worthwhile.

Sadly this is likely true. Just look at the effectiveness of mass protests and legislation put in place in last 2-3 years to make them illegal (UK, Canada, Poland come to mind).

In 2011, a frustrated citizen in Killeen, TX started collecting signatures in a parking lot to recall the entire city council. Enough people signed to officially recall 5 seats.

Reference: http://www.kcentv.com/story/16070848/killeen-city-council-re...

On the other hand, if the threshold is high enough, they might actually start recognizing the petitions. At the current limit, a successful petition represents a fractional percentage of voting Americans, but if the threshold was 1 million, any successful petition represents at least 1% of voting Americans.

> If petitions actually worked, they'd be banned.

By this logic, if your comment was correct, your comment wouldn't exist.

You got it. Nothing but a placebo for the average Joe.

Calling them completely ineffective is a stretch, at a minimum they create more opportunity for spreading news. Whether that has any effect is a function of the person who receives it.

Whether the threshold is 100K or 100M, nothing has happened yet as a result of a "successful" petition. Sure, the stupid petitions give them a chance to giggle at the rubes. The most reasonable petitions get essentially the same reaction, however. ["Legalize pot? I think we can guess what they were smoking when they signed that one! Hahahaha!"] As much as I wish it were otherwise, I expect the same for the current "fire the prosecutor" petition. Ortiz might be reassigned to a different state, but only as part of a promotion: she's been "playing ball". They want federal prosecutors to be tone-deaf automatons of sovereign vengeance out of any sense of proportion. This petition is proof that she is what they want. She'll probably print out the page and have it framed for her new office in New York or DC or wherever.

> Whether the threshold is 100K or 100M, nothing has happened yet as a result of a "successful" petition.

This isn't true. For example, the White House had been intentionally silent on the issue of SOPA until two petitions pushed it to take a stand, which had a not small impact on the outcome of the legislation.


> The most reasonable petitions get essentially the same reaction, however. ["Legalize pot? I think we can guess what they were smoking when they signed that one! Hahahaha!"]

Please cite examples. I am aware of two responses to marijuana legalization petitions. Both were reasonable, respectful, and laid out why the White House disagreed with the petitioners.



It's neither reasonable nor respectful to maintain that cannabis ought to be prohibited.

Representative democracy is just that: representative, not direct. You have people who represent a whole body (district/state/whatever), not a drone that will pull a lever when you tell him to. They should try to determine what their whole electorate wants, not just the majority of it, and then faithfully represent that point of view in various ways, which is not just voting or fielding new laws.

Petitioning, per se, has always been a sort of plea, a supplication to the ruler that he should pay attention to something. You bring the petition to your ruler, he reads it, and then does what his conscience suggests him to do (which might be to prosecute every single signatory, for what we know). This hasn't changed. Petitions are tools to get topics "on the radar", providing another datapoint to decision-makers; nothing more, nothing less.

If you want direct democracy, then you need a website where you can propose laws and force the legislative branch to actually vote on them. This is a nice idea in theory, but in practice it's a quagmire waiting to happen (unless you really want laws glorifying Anonymous or public buildings dedicated to moot).

> They should try to determine what their whole electorate wants

I'd argue that they should determine what they whole electorate wants... but they should be striving for what their whole electorate needs. It may not get them re-elected, but getting re-elected isn't "supposed" to be their job, doing what's best for the people they represent is.

Sadly, none of that seems even close to common practice.

Yeah, there is an ongoing debate on the meaning of "representation", of course. After all, most electoral systems are based on geographical locations, but actual politicians usually belong to specific parties "representing" different political philosophies, so there's a friction even at a theoretical level. Add to that the vagaries of actual electoral rules (first-past-the-post etc etc) and an inevitable dose of human nature (corruption, ambition etc), and you have a recipe for the clusterfuck that is modern representative democracy.

Unfortunately, the few alternative models emerging in the last century (usually just variations on one-party rule, really) backfired quite spectacularly, so we're nowhere near finding better solutions to the problem.

We have direct democracy in California and the world isn't ending. I think essentially you just gather enough signatures for an issue and it gets put to a direct vote on the same ballot as the presidential elections.

Although it's by no means perfect (what is?), it does help solve the problem of special interests being able to buy politicians.

I'm not incredibly familiar with CA, but I'd argue you probably have some provisions for direct democracy, akin to referenda or people-proposed laws in some European countries. The main system is still fundamentally representative in nature.

Yes, but the point is that allowing people to directly petition the government via gathering signatures, which then triggers a public vote of the citizens, does not lead to quagmire. Far from it.

When done offline, no. When done online, though, it's a whole different ballgame. Even limited automation of electronic voting has been proven extremely unreliable and prone to fraud. This is not a big deal when consequences are limited (i.e. petitions, non-binding surveys etc), but when actual legislative action starts depending entirely on a few electrons, then it's a scandal waiting to happen.

The purpose of the petitions is to provide input as to what issues concern people, not to provide a list of things to be the subjects of immediate executive orders. The kind of action we should expect from a successful petition is to put the issue on the agenda, which may lead to policy changes and legislative action.

Interestingly in this scheme, it's not just one way as you made it sound. As soon as the petition reaches a certain threshold it warrants an official answer from the governing body stating their approach on the matter. This way both petitioners and non-petitioners have a glimpse into the decisions that might be taken or not taken on the matter, and decide what to do when election time comes.

What do you suggest then? Resigning ourselves to apathy would seem to play right into their hand. Obviously a lot more than a petition is necessary to effect change, but it seems a reasonable place to start.

> Obviously a lot more than a petition is necessary to effect change, but it seems a reasonable place to start.

If you live in the United States you have a congressperson. Contacting them is a much more reasonable place to start.

Okay, but a petition is a public focal point that takes 30 seconds to contribute too. The cynical attitude "I'm not going to do this because it won't help" is probably a greater negative to one's personal effect on the cause than however much time it might waste.

The petitions are ignored precisely because it takes so little effort to do. I'd also imagine that lots of people say 'oh, I signed that petition, I don't need to do anything else'.

I like the idea that of there being some easy middle ground between doing nothing and going to the effort of calling/emailing/writing a congressperson. If the person you were responding to is correct and nothing of consequence has come of these petitions, that is not what this is.

Venting that effort into something that doesn't work at all does not strike me as a net positive.

With the current legislature, a local vocal group of constituents is a much more effective means of citizen-government communication than an internet survey that takes 30 seconds to contribute to.

Why is it either-or?

A more reasonable place to start appears to be making a lot of money and then using it to lobby relentlessly.

Fact: you'll care less about this stuff once you have a lot of money.

I suspect a neurochemical basis for this - when one is rich and in the higher echelons of society, it goes to reason that their brains will have more serotonin swimming around due to a) better food and b) more socialising.

Having higher levels of serotonin makes us more blind to unfairness:


> We observed the effects of manipulating 5-HT function on behavior in the ultimatum game, where players must decide whether to accept or reject fair or unfair monetary offers from another player. Participants with depleted 5-HT levels rejected a greater proportion of unfair offers, but not fair offers, without showing changes in mood, fairness judgment, basic reward processing, or response inhibition.

Take the long view. Organize and build a large, broad-based coalition of support and advocate strategically and creatively for the change you want to see. It's the only thing that ever works.

And I'd argue that that's a good thing. Being able to get an official comment and maybe some future consideration of the issue from the White House is one thing, but being able to substantially impact policy by getting a relatively small number of people (in Internet terms) to spend a minute signing an online petition doesn't seem like a high enough threshold. Requiring the kind of effort you're talking about doesn't guarantee positive change either, but I think it helps ensure people really want the change their advocating.

I'm sure some people like the idea of being able to successfully demand that individuals in government be fired through the petition system, but that seems like a Pandora's box if ever there was one.

Calling whatever is going on with that website "petitions" is a pretty misleading move, and it has been from the start. The "petitions" carry even less weight than ones gathered manually by interest groups, and they certainly carry absolutely no weight if you compare them to legally necessary petitions (such as putting candidates on ballots).

What (now) 100k votes gets you is a guaranteed response from a White House spokesperson. That's all. For a WH person to even look at a few sentences of text, it takes 100k people. For the most part, neither petitioners nor the spokesperson take those things seriously. As it is, a petition carries less weight than a reporter asking a third-tier aide a policy question.

I'm sure someone at the WH has made the argument internally already if something appears on the "petition" website, that's a pretty good indicator not to do whatever is asked.

The "petition" site is also a genius move as far as fake openness and the illusion grassroots democracy goes because it neatly captures and binds both crackpots and armchair activists in a safe bundle where they are guaranteed to have absolutely no impact whatsoever. Politics is not made by internet people, nor is politics made for people in any way.

>What (now) 100k votes gets you is a guaranteed response from a White House spokesperson.

And it might even be customized for your exact case, rather than "form letter gun control response #27".

True. I'm not really suggesting the site is a bad idea, but I think people should bear in mind it's essentially just a Q&A.

I also take issue with the name of the site.

My first reaction to the announcement was negative:


But now, I am not so sure. Raising the threshold seems like a sound response to the program gaining traction if the Whitehouse wants it to succeed - closing it down would be the simple response if their goal was not to be bothered. Raising the threshold (a second time) invites people to take the low effort act of signing a petition more seriously - even if this seems a bit counter intuitive at first blush.

Imagine if a response from the Whitehouse required just one signature. It would sure gain traction. But it would encourage triviality. "It's 1am, Barry. Make my neighbor's dog shut up."

Increasing the threshold requires more political organization. At the original 5000 signatures, the barrier to entry posed from organizing was low enough to reward minimal success at political organization. Moving it to 25,000 required better organization.

Barry believes in the power of grassroots political organization to the point of putting his money in the form of a Harvard JD where his mouth is. Two campaigns for president have shown him that much of its future will be implemented with digital tools.

The Whitehouse is seeking the sweet spot of participatory democracy at the scale of the Whitehouse. If, as I suspect, similar strategies are implemented at lower levels of government, Democrat party leadership now has data upon which to make informed decisions at those levels.

With any petition, signing is a trivial effort. Buy-in comes from watching progress not from demanding answers. The speed with which signatures were collected for petitions related to Aaron Swartz's death shows that the threshold was too low. Firing the prosecutor expresses anger, but it doesn't seek structural change. Lynch mobs don't.

"Firing the prosecutor expresses anger, but it doesn't seek structural change. Lynch mobs don't."

That was pretty much exactly what I said in a comment on that petition the day it was posted on HN. I received multiple downvotes right away, and things didn't balance out until several days later when the comment finally reached 1 point again.

So I agree that the low threshold makes it too easy for a short term "anger wave" to reach the petition threshold. But I also think that by making the threshold too high you lose the possibility of smaller interest groups getting attention.

Politics is already about the big players, and the giant special interest groups with the millions and millions of dollars to play with. There were already very few successful petitions that actually got responses, now there will be even fewer.

Firing a prosecutor precisely over the overreach issue creates structural change. The irony of reversed change-through-intimidation is evident.

FWIW, I highly doubt that this has anything to do with the Aaron Swartz petitions. It's more likely because of the recent petitions to build a Death Star, secede from the Union, protect the Sasquatch as an indigenous species, and (I shit you not) petitions to "stop white genocide".

Wont this kind of petitions always get more votes than ones about serious issues? If so what does raising the bar help?

Bullshit. Before this change, plenty of petitions exceeded 25k and were ignored because there was no easy political solution. Now petitions will have to reach 100k before being ignored. Maybe it's time to actually exercise our right to assemble and not be pacified by the presence of a petition website.

The official blog post (sorry for the CNET blogspam): http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/01/15/why-we-re-raising-...

I like the idea of the We The People petitions, but I think the focus is wrong. Petitioning the president is a way to get an idea noticed, but it's not the way the legislative process in this country works. Laws are created by the Congress. I think it would be a much more effective system if it petitioned Congress.

Right now you can contact your representatives, but I think this system of online petitions would work if the party leadership agreed to have a representative respond to each petition instead of a White House staffer.

Repeat after me:

I will not discuss politics on HN.

I will not discuss politics on HN.

I will not discuss politics on HN.

I will not discuss politics on HN.

I will not discuss politics on HN.

One of my personal guidance statements (I hate resolutions) for this year in order to (a) keep the off-topic noise down and, (b) not engage in debates that are often pointless, can be offensive and end-up not helping anyone or fixing anything.

I am trying hard to stick to this. So far, so good. Although temptation is sometimes great. Almost caved-in a couple of times.

I rather be far more constructive and focus on tech.

I did hesitate before submitting this, but decided that it was on topic as it may have insights into the ever-present issue of signal-to-noise ratios in large online communities.

Makes sense. In the UK we need 100k signatures and the population is obviously much smaller. The government probably got tired of having to respond to things like building the Death Star.

> got tired of having to respond to things like building the Death Star.

Their loss, really.

I'm half joking - putting more money into space research might net us interesting things like cheaper energy (solar panels with no atmosphere or clouds to obscure them) and materials (asteroid mining). A major space station would certainly help with that.

interesting you mention space research - the only real reason the US of A made it to the moon is because of the cold war.

Perhaps it does take an "enemy" to focus the efforts of a nation. And with the fairly peaceful times now (at least, for the major powerhouses), that doesn't seem at all likely.

Makes sense given the population of the USA, I always thought 25k was too low, wasn't it modelled off Sweden or something which has a much smaller population?

If I was a government official and wanted to troll an entire country, I would set something like this up along with a script that behaved as follows: As soon as signatures for any petition came within 4% of threshold value I would automatically double the threshold.

Note that, in the case of the White House petitions, the higher threshold does not apply to already-existing petitions, only petitions created in the future. The White House is not trolling in the manner you suggest.

I think this really makes sense given that in Germany we have a quorum of 50k with a much smaller population. The same thing is probably true for other smaller countries as well.

I was surprised to learn that the population of Germany is 80 million, the same "order of magnitude" as the United States.

(By contrast, the U.S. has 30X the land area of Germany.)

What can a quorum of 50k people accomplish in Germany?

Your petition might get a reading in the Parliament and you're allowed to speak. However, this is not a guaranteed outcome, the Bundestag or rather the committee in charge of petitions may deny you the public reading with a 2/3 majority.

However, on the state level there is a "Volksentscheid" where the people can directly vote or enforce a vote on an issue. The quorum and the topics that are eligible for a Volksentscheid depend on the states legislation. Berlin for example allows a vote on general topics of interest while other states only allow votes on proposed laws.

Have there been any particularly notable uses or outcomes of this process?

The most notable outcome was probably the petition against internet blocks in germany [1] which was signed by more than 130 000 persons and was a crucial milestone in gathering public attention which ultimately brought the law to a fall.

[1] you know, against child porn. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zugangserschwerungsgesetz for a short summary.

The graphs show membership and signatures suddenly rising rapidly in the last couple of months. The article also mentions it. Is that triggered by the election, and coverage of the various "Allow <state> to peacefully secede" petitions that followed?

This whole idea was bound to be a failure from the start, but still, the administration pushed it. Now they validate my original conclusions: this is a great mechanism to convince the legions of redditors that they actually matter. Whenever petitions reach the threshold, they can just claim "the project is so successful, we have to raise limits keep it manageable", when in reality it is pure window dressing for a President who has successfully manipulated to youth. Ugh, I wish we had a 3rd party!

Why not make it a percentage of the (qualified to vote) population?

It is already:

(100k signatures / 200M voters) = 0.05%

Public awareness of the petition site is growing much, much more rapidly than the number of eligible voters in the U.S. Thus it makes more sense to tie the required number of signatures to the number of people who know about the petitions site, which is essentially what they are doing.

For example, they might have internal targets of a fixed number of successful petitions per month, or a fixed fraction of petitions being successful. This makes sense. To maintain these targets the number of required signatures would be periodically adjusted.

If you want to know how effective a system of action is (petitions, marches, strikes), look at how the government reacts to it. Left-wing causes are a threat to the regime. That is why we saw police being organized to crush OWS, and why Federal prosecutors threw the book at Aaron Schwartz.

If you're going to effect a significant change, you're going to need a critical mass of people coming together to do it. Lone wolves are picked off with ease.

That took longer than I expected.

I would have expected it to be a smaller majority signing a whole bunch of petitions. Interestingly it looks like it was mostly one signature per account, until about a month ago (the x-axis really needs more granularity).

What I would really like to see now, is are the accounts signing two petitions on average, or is it still mostly one signature per account with a handful of people signing three or more?

They can require a billion signatures on the petition. We will STILL successfully petition for a Death Star.

After the Death Star petition, albeit cute, it was inevitable that they would.

As I wrote in the thread under the posting of the original source (the White House announcement),


The founders of the United States knew that a representative democracy (what they termed a "republic") has some distinct advantages over direct democracy. This fact was discussed at length in the jointly authored Federalist Papers.


History shows that this fact is rediscovered in each new generation through hard experience, on a bipartisan basis.

Why didn't they just change it to 100 million and get it over with. If they couldn't be bothered to respond after 25,000 sigs, they've clearly no interest.

Wait a sec. Are politicians supposed to do what we want them to, or are they supposed to do what they want after we select them for office?

Somebody needs to create a petition to reduce the signature threshold back to 25k.

Better yet, a petition to actually act on petitions, would be nice.

Translation: "We really don't want any more Death Star petitions getting through."

How silly it would be if the government works only on the popularity vote!!

It started out at 5,000 signatures. Then it went to 25k. Now it's 100k?

For some reason I'm reminded of Colonel Carthcart in Catch-22[1], who continually raised the number of missions crew had to fly to complete a tour of duty.

It's almost like the Whitehouse put the site up to listen to and respond to the people that elected them, but has to raise the barriers so that it doesn't have to listen to and respond to the people that elected them. If that's not Catch-22 in the US government, then I'm not sure what is.

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch-22

Yet somehow I think there would be people peeved knowing that the White House pays a staff to write a reply to every petition that gets the number of signatures equivalent to the number of retweets Justin Bieber gets when he blinks.

And yes, a "staff", because someone has to sort/collate the petitions, write the response, and also legally/factually vet the response, as it isn't a reddit post but something that is the official voice of the government

Here's a legitimate question that I'd like to know the answer to.

How many petitions on the White House petition site, regardless of the number of signatories have resulted in a direct change to US policy, in favour of the petition? I think people should be getting more peeved about the answer to that question than the number of staff writing non-responses to them.

Oh, i thought he was the guy in charge of copyright expiration!

Interesting, I didn't know they had quadrupled it back in Oct 2011: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/10/03/good-problem-have-...

It seems totally reasonable to manage growth in this way.

We don't want to listen. Oh, you actually want us to? Let's placate the sheep for a few more months.

If a petition ever gets to 100k it'll go up to one million.

There have been petitions with over 100k signatures. There are open ones (less than 30 days old) right now.

I only see one: "Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group" with approx 300k signatures. The next highest has 80k signatures. (I'm assuming that the "popular" petitions are ranked by number of signatures, which appears to be the case.)

"If Voting Really Changed Anything, They'd Ban It"

Anyone else thinking of a petition against this threshold raise?


Ahh...one step closer to direct democracy :)

Challenge accepted.

they should have had a petition to decide if they want to raise this!

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